It's dejecting when you consider how many hacks have reduced Agatha Christie's brilliance to a derivative, typical “whodunnit” inhabited by stock characters who exist solely for the sake of the plot. Which is exactly why it's such a distinct pleasure to attend Theatre Britain's current production of Christie's The Mousetrap, an engaging, pleasurable, meticulously constructed murder mystery with organic roles that are rich with personal history and detail. Mollie Ralston, a young bride and her husband, Giles, have relaunched the guest house Mollie inherited. Short on experience, but long on enthusiasm, the two have barely opened the doors to Monkswell Manor, when their first guests arrive. The seven of them are quickly trapped in these digs, due to a ferocious blizzard. Seeming to appear from nowhere, Detective Sergeant Trotter climbs in through a window; sent by headquarters to prevent another homicide by a fiend who managed to commit murder on a street corner, concealed by a hat and scarf.
Each one of the characters has their own quirks, charms and foibles. Christopher Wren (an effusive young man) named for the famous architect, loves to help Mollie with the cooking. He finds the prospect of a killer at large giddy and beguiling, until he must deal with an actual death.. Mrs. Boyle is a stodgy old harpy, grousing about anything she can find, and making the rest miserable. Needless to say she is the first to bite the dust. Gradually, as more is revealed, the connection between the murderer and particular guests is made clear. Not only does Christie explore the pathology of the perpetrator, she examines the nature of intimacy, secrecy, trust and catastrophe. A childhood tragedy is uncovered as the catalyst for this cluster of executions, and Christie weaves this subplot into a compelling drama, imbuing the roles and narrative with nuance and depth. Even the central conceit has layers : the grisly children's song, the “blindness” of justice, the guest house transformed into a snare.
The cast of The Mousetrap is first-rate, with lots of fine touches and entertaining turns. The actors clearly savor the opportunity to create well-conceived identities and make the most of the dangerous, shadowy content. Director Sue Birch has done a splendid job, orchestrating the timing, pace and tone of this intriguing script. Kudos to Darryl P. Clement whose evocative set design is ingenious, convincing, and alluring. All in all, Theatre Britain has exceeded the usual by-the-numbers interpretation to produce an experience that is enjoyable, surprising, memorable and eerie.
Theatre Britain presents Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, playing March 14th-30th, 2014. Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00; matinees Saturdays & Sundays at 2:30. Tickets $16-21. Cox Building Playhouse, 1517 H Avenue, Plano TX 75074. www.theatre-britain.com or 972.490.4202