By Agatha Christie
Reviewed by Daniel. M. Byway
Tickets are now available until September 16, 2018. Book at www.witnesscountyhall.com
Agatha Christie never falls out of fashion. Her ability to tell a story and conjure up a fascinating cast of characters will always be a hallmark of her contribution to British crime literature. What makes Lucy Bailey’s latest production of Christie’s tale Witness for the Prosecution all the more interesting is that it combines that classic Christie storytelling with a gem of a venue in London County Hall’s Council Chamber. Once the home of the London Greater Council, and the scene for ferocious political debates in the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the imposing chamber offers an atmospheric accompaniment to the tension of Christie’s courtroom drama.
Witness for the Prosecution was first seen in London in 1953 at the Winter Garden Theatre, telling the story of Leonard Vole, a young man accused of murder, and his enigmatic wife Romaine, who serves as a witness at the trial.
After the original staging, one reviewer commented that the story’s twists and turns made criticism ‘almost impossible’ as ‘one must not give away the clue’ to the ending. What makes these twists and turns even more pronounced in this latest production is that the Council Chamber gives a very authentic dimension to the performance, transporting the audience directly into the action. It is the perfect setting – this doesn’t feel like a theatrical experience, it feels like the genuine Old Bailey.
The realism of the venue is accentuated by a strong cast, with Jack McMullen as the defendant Leonard Vole, Philip Franks and David Yelland as the classically British prosecuting and defending attorneys respectively, and Patrick Godfrey as the frighteningly striking judge, Mr Justice Wainwright.
Christie consulted a legal professional when completing the story that became Witness, and this forensic attention to detail cements that realism further on the stage, even down to the inclusion of a stenographer and other legal figures.
A real star of the show is Catherine Steadman, who takes on the role of the mysterious Romaine Vole – the witness referred to in the play’s title. Steadman lives the emotion of her characters on stage. Her emotionally charged portrayal of Jean Tatlock in the 2015 RSC production of Oppenheimer earned her a nomination for an Olivier award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and she brings that same magic to Witness. Though Romaine may be a classic Christie character – the type with a hidden motive – Steadman’s performance is far from cliché, giving Romaine a genuine intrigue that leaves you guessing her true motive til the end.
Not all of the play takes place in the court room itself, and William Dudley’s clever designs take advantage of the space to transition simply between scenes. Chris Davey’s lighting and Mic Pool’s sound also aid the experience, maximizing the impact of County Hall’s unique properties.
The location may well sound like a novelty, but it really adds to the production without overshadowing it.
Combined with a slick, accomplished performance and a classic, memorable mystery crime tale, the echoey, imposing Council Chamber delivers a unique opportunity to see a courtroom drama in a venue that plays to its strengths. The show’s run was recently extended to September 2018, so get yourself sworn in and sit back for what will be a must see production in London this year.