David Turner, who has died aged 84, spent 30 years involved with Agatha Christie’s long-running show The Mousetrap, directing dozens of different casts and steering the play through its 50th-anniversary performance in 2002 when Queen Elizabeth II was in the audience.
The Mousetrap was written for Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, who requested “an Agatha Christie play” for her 80th-birthday radio broadcast. Originally entitled Three Blind Mice, the drama was first seen at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, in October 1952. It transferred to the Ambassadors Theatre, London, in November 1952 before moving in March 1974 to St Martin’s Theatre, which remains its home.
The author herself supposed it was worth “a nice little run of six months” and gave the copyright to her teenage grandson, Mathew Prichard. When the play opened, starring Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, the critics praised it for “sustaining the curiosity”.
Turner, who first saw The Mousetrap at a Tuesday matinee in 1961, joined in 1987 with instructions from the original producer, Sir Peter Saunders, to concentrate on engendering the chemistry between the actors. He expected to be with the show for a year, but was kept busy making annual cast changes and removing outdated references such as the “three guineas a week” cost of staying at Monkswell Manor.
“We wanted to make it timeless, but that’s increasingly difficult,” he told The Times. “It now beggars belief that eight people would get stranded in a country house and not one of them would have a mobile phone. The only prop that hasn’t changed since 1952 is the clock on the mantelpiece.”
Each day Turner commuted from Worthing, West Sussex, to the West End, where his tiny office window opened directly above the neon Mousetrap logo. On top of his immaculate filing cabinets sat sheets of paper logging details of every performance, including on-stage accidents such as: “Lampshade on wall bracket above radio dislodged by Mr Ralston’s door slam in Act II.” He received 300 letters a week, mostly from actors wanting to audition for the show.
Rarely did he stay for the evening performance (“I’d go potty”), but was naturally present for a royal visit. When Prince Edward, now Duke of Edinburgh, attended, the theatre’s recording of the National Anthem had not been played for many years. “It was terribly grainy, and Prince Edward leant over and said, ‘I think it’s as old as the play’, ” he said.
Despite Turner’s best endeavours, not everything went smoothly. He told of actors banging their heads and uttering unscripted lines such as: “Oh, bugger.” His worst experience was when one actor came off during the second act, walked out of the stage door and caught the bus home: “He’d had a bit of a breakdown, poor lad.”
David Turner was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, on October 31 1938, the son of Sydney Turner, a stage manager, and his wife Myra (née Waters), who ran theatrical digs.
He was awarded a scholarship to Kettering Grammar School, taught Sunday school at the Methodist church and made his stage debut as the back end of Connie, a pantomime cow. Gradually he moved to more diverse roles including Shylock’s critic Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, Mortimer Brewster in Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace and Phillip in Terence Rattigan’s homosexual tale The Deep Blue Sea.
Settling in Worthing, he scuttled across the country directing plays and musicals. “It can be a long way from Siam to Venice on a Tuesday morning,” he quipped while overseeing productions of The King and I and The Gondoliers in different towns.
Elsewhere he directed Harold Purcell’s rewrite of his wartime musical success The Lisbon Story, staged the centenary performance of The Pirates of Penzance in Penzance with an all-Cornish cast, and secured the European performing rights to Ernest Thompson’s plays including On Golden Pond and The West Side Waltz.
He founded Worthing Light Opera Company (now Worthing Musical Theatre Company) in 1972, directing 21 productions during its first 12 years, and in 1980 was appointed director of the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, overseeing the repertory company and producing musicals. His staging of The Sound of Music was described by the Daily Telegraph’s Eric Shorter as a “nicely staged exhumation”. Then came the Mousetrap call.
During his holidays Turner adjudicated at drama festivals such as Buxton and Waterford, where he had the thankless task of finding something nice to say about every performance regardless of its merits. He also enjoyed pottering among the 16 fruit trees in his garden.
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, who succeeded Saunders as producer of The Mousetrap in 1994, described in The Stage how Turner kept in touch with most of those he had worked with. He made an exception, however, for the few he felt had let the show down, even refusing to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of one and telling their family of his reasons.
David Turner’s partner, Terry Rickwood, a theatre publicist, died in 2020.
David Turner, born October 31 1938, died August 17 2023