Now running into its second year Witness for the Prosecution invites you into the courtroom direct, to witness the dramas of a trial as they unfold, in a new site-specific production of Agatha Christie’s classic crime story. Witness for the Prosecutionwas first seen in London in 1953 at the Winter Garden Theatre. Here the production is held at the historical London County Hall – For 64 years County Hall served as the headquarters of local government for London.
The lights dim, and the accused is hauled before a judge (Michael Cochrane) – his red gown and black cap soon to mete out death by hanging on Leonard Vole (played by Lewis Cope). We are told a rich woman has been found dead. Her younger “lover” and only heir, Leonard Vole, is on trial for the murder. The opening sequence is spine-chilling and gripping to watch with clever use of staging and lighting and sets you up for the story that will unfold before your eyes.
We go back in time and enter the barristers’ chambers and see how the story takes shape as we find that Leonard Vole is a man of good intentions, gullible and instantly likeable. He has come to seek help after he has read about the death of Emily French – a rich woman he has befriended. Mr Mayhew (Tim Frances) has brought him to meet Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (Simon Dutton) to help the young man and then we meet Leonard’s beautiful foreign beret wearing wife Romaine (Carolin Stoltz) who comes across as a slippery, manipulative woman.
The scenes go between the chambers, the court room and even a dark alley which is very imposing when staging in County Hall a unique place for a play to be held. Every detail of this production is impressive – the entrances and aisles are used for moving scenery and character’s entering and exiting. And if you are seated near the front you could be joined by one of the solicitors as they also immerse themselves into the audience rather subtly. It is also quite atmospheric to hear the names of witnesses being called and echoing around the marbled column halls. And even before the play starts actors as Policemen and Barristers walk the building and give you the feeling that you are already in court!
We get to meet other characters Agatha Christie created such as Mr Myers QC (Giles Taylor) the menacing prosecutor that addresses the jury sternly to get his evidence across to plead his case, Giles Taylor played his role with great passion. Janet Mackenzie (Janet Fullerlove) is Ms. French’s long-term companion and housekeeper who has some very funny moments while on the stand but also leaves you thinking there are more layers to this tale. We also meet Ms Clegg a laboratory assistant who comes across as a bumbling witness and Greta the secretary to Robarts QC who are both played by Francesca Knight – we have to admit we didn’t realise it was the same actress till we read the programme on the way home! In fact, everyone in the cast is perfect for this production bringing the Witness for the Prosecution to life.
Witness for the Prosecution was Christie’s favourite of all her works (‘It was one of my plays that I like best myself,’ she recalls in her autobiography). The 1925 short story-turned-play is just as popular with audiences; it has been adapted for film, international theatre and various TV series. This is the first major production of an Agatha Christie play to open in London since the 1960s. The last, The Mousetrap, is still going strong after 67 years on the West End.
William Dudley’s clever designs here take advantage of the space to transition simply between scenes. Chris Davey’s lighting and Mic Pool’s sound also aid the experience, maximising the impact of County Hall’s unique properties.
A difference in this production is the jury who are made up of 12 audience members who were sworn in before the play started by Karlina Grace-Paseda (who played the stenographer – loved the attention to detail with her stenotype actually working) and these jurors have the difficult task of deciding whether to believe Leonard Vole’s testimony, that he’s innocent or for the hangman’s noose. They must shut out from their minds everything except what will take place during the trial, this would be a fun group activity to book as it’s not everyday you get to decide an outcome such as this.
This production is imaginative, charming and invigorates an Agatha Christie classic. Grab yourself a ticket for a truly unique evening out as we cannot reveal how this story ends as we have been sworn to secrecy . . . see you in court!
Witness for the Prosecution is on at London County Hall until March 2020, more information can be found online.