Agatha Christie’s presence in London’s theatrical scene is, even today, taken for granted. With The Mousetrap still being played after 65 years, whodunits are still a cult favourite. In Witness for the Prosecution, however, the crime has already been committed before curtain up, and what we find instead is a fine courtroom drama, which has been adapted widely, most famously by Billy Wilder in the 1957 film starring Marlene Dietrich, and most recently in a BBC miniseries starring Kim Cattrall.
Using a space such as the Council Chamber at the London County Hall is a fantastic idea. Posing as the Old Bailey, the Council Chamber has the appearance, feel and excitement of a real courtroom, and makes the audience a part of the action the moment they walk in. The excitement starts building up from the moment the Front of House staff greet you with “Welcome to the Old Bailey!” and reaches its climax when the audience sits down and takes in the elegance of the room. The space is used to good effect throughout, although some scene transitions are slightly longer than they should be.
Christie’s 1953 play revolves around a trial, with special emphasis on witness interrogations and opening and closing remarks by the prosecution and defence. Leonard Vole (Jack McMullen) is accused of murder, and everything looks to be against him: will the defence be able to secure a not-guilty verdict from the jury? If you have not seen the film or the miniseries, then you are in for a few twists and turns in pure classic drama fashion. It is now a period play, and thus some of its dramatic devices might seem excessively melodramatic for a modern audience. However, the overall package makes it seem like you are time travelling back to the 1950s, with the help of the setting and of mostly credible and compelling performances.
The whole cast do an excellent job. Roger Ringrose as Mr Mayhew and David Yelland as Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC are at the core of this production. Their conversations – and many witticisms – move the plot forwards and show the inner workings of the defence team. On the other side, prosecutor Mr Myers QC (Philip Franks) gives more of a comic performance with pomposity and a clear rivalry between himself and the defence attorney. McMullen plays Leonard Vole, the accused, to perfection, showing the anguish, anxiety and overall despair of the situation. Catherine Steadman plays the exotic and mysterious Romaine Vole with an attitude departing from the glamour and seductiveness of previous incarnations (particularly Dietrich’s). Instead, she is played with a no-nonsense and practical attitude (and a slightly misplaced German accent in places). It is also very worth mentioning Jules Melvin, who gives a standout performance as distressed housekeeper Janet Mackenzie.
Witness for the Prosecution is a solid drama and a highly entertaining incarnation of Christie’s classic. Keeping it in its original context and setting while adding in the surroundings of the County Hall heightens the courtroom drama tension. Despite a slight turn to the melodramatic in its final minutes – which is fitting overall but off-putting for an audience today – this production offers joyful escapism, a few laughs and plenty of drama. All rise!
Witness for the Prosecution is playing at the London County Hall until March 11 2018.
Photo: Tristram Kenton