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Why the ’70s ‘queenpin’ of Scottish Theatre wore a silver mousetrap round her neck

Former Perth Theatre director Joan Knight’s intriguing link to the world’s longest-running play.

The 70th anniversary of The Mousetrap is seeing the iconic play go on tour. Image: Perth Theatre.
The 70th anniversary of The Mousetrap is seeing the iconic play go on tour. Image: Perth Theatre.

It is 1974, a post flower-power Perth.

You are a young Blairgowrie woman, in love with all things dramatic, when you land a job as the first ever general manager of the newly revived regional theatre; this is a job women can have, now.

The theatre is hard work but colourful. You see the actors around as you work across the years; some lads called Andy Gray, Jason Connery and Ewan MacGregor show promise, you’re told.

But as you step into this new era of your life, it is not any of these men but a woman, older than you, whose name holds the most weight: Joan Knight.

“Joan was the artistic director at Perth Theatre when I started there in 1974,” says former Perth Theatre general manager and current vice-chairwoman Vanessa Rawlings-Jackson.

“She was an extraordinary icon of Scottish Theatre; I was going to say the kingpin, but no, she was the queenpin.

“She put Perth Theatre back on the map.

Joan Knight was the ‘queenpin’ of Scottish theatre. Image: Perth Theatre.

“I was in my mid-20s when I started as Perth Theatre general manager, and the fact that I was working with such an extraordinary and iconic woman as Joan Knight really set me on my path, which was working in the arts my entire life.”

So much so, Vanessa explains, that when she suggested naming the theatre’s new studios in the late Joan’s honour in 2017, the suggestion was met with enthusiasm, and ultimately enacted.

She was, it seems, that kind of memorable.

A Knight to remember

“Joan always wore kaftans and smoked Cigarillos,” Vanessa says, laughing softly.

“Her presence was as a woman of Perth, as much as a woman of the theatre. There are people living in the city now who were the children on the stages of the pantomime, and she was always at the first night.

“She shopped in the Perth Marks and Spencer’s, and she had all her dry-cleaning done at Pullars.

“I quite often used to be sent to go and collect it!”

Now 30 years after Joan’s retirement from Perth Theatre, many of the current cohort of artists and directors have no personal memories of the woman whose name hangs – literally – over their heads.

The Joan Knight studio at Perth Theatre., unveiled in 2017. Image: Douglas McBride.

But Vanessa does. During their time together at Perth Theatre, she and Joan became firm friends, with Joan even being known as ‘Auntie Joan’ to Vanessa’s children, and godmother to her eldest son.

So when she heard that The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s legendary whodunnit, was coming to Perth Concert Hall this month, Vanessa knew Joan’s legacy was at play once again.

Because in her own daughter’s jewellery box, there lies a one-of-a-kind necklace which has, instead of a pendant, a tiny silver mousetrap, and a tiny silver mouse; Joan’s necklace.

“When the team said The Mousetrap was coming to Perth, I just in passing said ‘Well of course, you know that Joan Knight directed The Mousetrap three times’,” laughs Vanessa.

“They all looked at me and went: ‘What?!’”

All the trappings of a good story

Indeed, before her influential 30 years at Perth, Joan worked in London directing The Mousetrap with British theatre legend and producer Sir Peter Saunders.

“Sir Peter was very much a gentleman of the theatre from that period,” Vanessa recalls.

“He was always suited, very smart.

“He married Katie Boyle, who was the woman who used to do all the introductions for the Eurovision.

“And he was actually the one who encouraged Agatha Christie to put on The Mousetrap.”

Sir Peter Saunders and Agatha Christie (right) with original cast members Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim. Image: The Mousetrap, London.

The play, which premiered in London’s West End in 1952, is the longest-running theatre production in the world.

Adapted from murder mystery queen Christie’s radio play Three Blind Mice, it is a classic Christie whodunnit with a twist ending.

A blizzard sees seven strangers trapped in a country guesthouse as news of a murderer in London causes panic. When a police sergeant arrives, they are horrified to discover the killer is in their midst, and one by one, they reveal their sordid histories.

Famously, the audience is asked by a lead actor in every performance not to tell anyone who the murderer is – a pact so strong that it was even included in the 2022 film about the play, See How They Run.

Sam Rockwell as Inspector Stoppard and Saoirse Ronan as Constable Stalker in See  How They Run. Image: PA.

Steeped in tradition, the play’s production is full of rituals that will delight theatre nerds – such as one of the original cast members still being on stage every night in the form of a voice recording, and the lead actresses cutting a Mousetrap cake when passing the baton from one cast to the next.

Since its opening, it has only ever stopped running once – due to the Covid lockdown.

And it was this extraordinary run that led to Joan’s silver necklace ending up in the possession of Vanessa’s daughter, Alice.

The tale of the mousetrap necklace

“Peter would hold these celebrations – the 1,000th performance, the 20th anniversary, and so on, and Joan would get invited,” explains Vanessa.

“One year, Joan went down and it was one of Peter’s special events, and he gave her this necklace – a silver necklace with a mousetrap.

“When I say ‘mousetrap’ people go ‘eugh’ but it wasn’t the mousetrap where they get their heads caught,” she chuckles.

“It was the old-fashioned ones with a cage, like a rat-catcher. So it’s the little box, with all the trappings, and the little mouse about to go in.”

Joan Knight’s Mousetrap necklace, left in her will to Vanessa Rawlings-Jackson’s daughter Alice. Image: Alice Beeby.

Joan left the necklace to Vanessa’s theatre-mad daughter Alice when she passed away in 1996, in a gesture Vanessa found “very touching”. Alice, now 35, still has the necklace, and has booked her tickets to see The Mousetrap this year.

And now for the first time in 10 years, the play will be seen outside of London’s West End, as it tours the UK’s largest theatrical venues, including Perth Concert Hall from April 17.

You Gotta Have A Gimmick

Vanessa herself saw it in London’s St Martin’s Theatre in its heyday, as a guest of Sir Peter.

And although she can’t tell me what happens – remember the pact – she has some theories as to what has made it such an outsize success.

“You Gotta Have A Gimmick!” she effuses, referencing the Bette Midler song from 1962 film Gypsy. “And I think The Mousetrap has two.

“In terms of the Agatha Christie stories that have been turned into plays or other similar crime thrillers, without giving anything away, there’s nothing about it that would particularly make you go: ‘Oh wow, that’s unusual’,” she admits.

“I think it’s just the quality of the story. And from the very beginning they said: ‘Don’t go out and tell everybody whodunnit’.

Vanessa Rawlings-Jackson, vice-chairwoman of Perth Theatre board. Image: Perth Theatre.

“It gathered a kind of mystique about it, which made people think: Well, if you’re not going to tell me what the story is, I’ll have to go and see it.

“It takes you in; in a way, it makes you part of the story.

“You’re a bit special, because you now have a secret.”

The second ‘gimmick’, Vanessa reckons, is the length of the run itself; in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, its record-breaking number of shows seems to only beget more ticket sales.

“Of course these things get embedded, don’t they?” she observes. “It’s not actually that they’re any different to anything else, but because it could then say it was the longest-running show, never missed a performance, etc, that gave it another aura.”

London calling?

And although for many theatregoers, making the trip to London to see the iconic play has become a sort of pilgrimage, Vanessa acknowledges that regional theatres have a duty to cater to those closer to home.

“I think the fact that at this point, the now-producers of The Mousetrap feel that it’s time to take a show like that out on the road again is an indication and an acknowledgement that for many people, particularly the slightly older generation, it’s not feasible to travel,” she says.

“It’s not so much a fear of Covid but there’s a whole thing about travelling, getting there, staying in hotels…”

The story is all too familiar; an echo of the pandemic that most arts venues are still hearing.

“So,” she continues briskly, “we need to be very clear on what we can offer our audiences and how we can involve our communities, and not expect that they will always make those journeys.

“And what this will do is give this very special production an opportunity to be seen by a much wider audience.”

The Mousetrap will run at Perth Concert Hall from April 17-22. For more information or to book tickets, visit the concert hall website.