So this is a neat idea. Take a classic courtroom drama by the Queen of Crime and stage it in the debating chamber of County Hall, posing as the Old Bailey, on London’s South Bank for a full immersive experience. A welcome by-product being some of the most comfortable theatre seats in London if you’re positioned in the main chamber.
Agatha Christie’s play has been adapted many times before, most notably in a recent atmospheric production by the BBC that starred Toby Jones and Kim Cattrell. And not forgetting Billy Wilder’s terrific 1957 film that starred Charles Laughton, at his ebullient hammy best, and Marlene Dietrich.
On screen one can open the story up of course, while onstage the play relies mostly on the courtroom scenes for its drama. That’s just as well for this production because the grandeur of the space works best when being used as a court. When the action switches to a barrister’s office or a dark London street, the carrying on and off of scenery rather slows the pace and destroys the atmosphere.
Leonard Vole (Jack McMullen, Waterloo Road) stands accused of murdering a rich older woman he befriended a few months before. Circumstantial evidence and the woman’s vindictive housekeeper (Jules Melvin) put him at the scene of the crime earlier in the evening of the murder. And his plea of innocence is thrown further in doubt when it’s discovered that the woman recently changed her will to make him the sole beneficiary.
His alibi of being at home when the deed was done relies on corroboration by his wife Romaine (Catherine Steadman, Downton Abbey), who’s a bit of a foreigner so less likely to be trusted by a jury.
It’s classic Christie did-he-didn’t-he? stuff and if you don’t know the outcome, it’s a delicious guessing game right to the very end.
Yes, the characters feel a little stereotyped with the passing of time, but in a warmly familiar Agatha Christie way. The adversarial cut and thrust between prosecutor Mr Myers (Philip Franks) and defensive lawyer Sir Wilfred Robarts (David Yelland, The Crown, Foyle’s War) is always compelling with a few delightful touches of humour, while Patrick Godfrey was born to play a judge. McMullen and Steadman’s characters don’t really convince as much. They are not drawn broadly enough to engage either our sympathy or revulsion.
Thankfully, director Lucy Bailey doesn’t mess about with it too much by keeping it in period and generally using this unique space well for an evening that is never less than thoroughly entertaining.
Witness for the Prosecution opened 23 October at London County Hall. www.witnesscountyhall.co and runs until 11 March
You can book tickets for the play and other West End shows at Radio Times Box Office
Photography by Sheila Burnett