Everyone loves an Agatha Christie play, right? It’s a reliable choice at the theatre any night of the week. So what makes this production of Witness for the Prosecution any different from the rest?
Oh. My. Word! Let’s start with the venue. The courtroom setting for this drama is situated in London County Hall, which is completely stunning. Completely. It’s enormous and strikingly opulent, with floor to ceiling marble, mahogany benches and red leather seating. Immediately you are immersed in the excitement of the courtroom itself and feel part of the case. Your role as an audience member might change depending on where you are sitting: you could be on the jury, or even deliver the verdict! Cast members enter and exit through the seating, so there are extra whispers of conversation that you might catch, which add to the authenticity of the scene. And the in-the-round setting means we’re constantly scrutinising those opposite, as the thrilling drama unfolds. Together, we are witness to a life or death decision!
We quickly learn that Emily French, a wealthy, older woman, has been murdered. She has left her inheritance to a young man, Leonard Vole (Joshua Glenister), and suspicion for her death falls on him, particularly when we discover he hadn’t disclosed to her that he is a married man. He now stands trial for his life, pleading his innocence with the assistance of renowned lawyer Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (Owen Oakeshott). In an unexpected twist, his German wife is called as a witness for the prosecution against him.
This new cast brings an exciting dynamism and focus to the show, keeping it razor sharp. Glenister is perfectly cast as the baby-faced Vole. Both unsettlingly nervous and cheekily naïve, he keeps us constantly on edge and really gives nothing away, with his culpability uncertain right up until the last moments of the play. Oakeshott is flawless as the competitive defence lawyer, determined to prove Vole innocent, driving the action forward with relentless energy.
Alongside the exciting detective work of the whodunnit, there is plenty of humour to be had, with secondary characters such as Mandy Symonds as Janet Mackenzie and James Hayes as Mr Justice Wainwright providing wonderfully funny moments. The use of the ensemble cast securely underpins the performance, with the police guards sealing off the doors adding to the oppressive environment, and tightly choreographed scene changers emphasising the theatricality of the court room drama – itself within a play: we’re constantly questioned as to what is truth and what is fiction here?
Innovative stage design by William Dudley makes impressive use of the space, whilst Chris Davey’s considered lighting brings both fierce intensity to the action, or adds chillingly to the murkiness of the story. The wonderfully evocative soundscape by Mic Pool surreptitiously creates an unnerving sense of deep unease and melodrama that is almost tangible!
Director Lucy Bailey’s choice of a post-WW2 setting allows for beautiful period costuming, which is a joy in itself. Additionally, it cleverly provides a historical backdrop of division between social classes and a mistrust of foreigners, which feeds toxically into the tension.
This production is enormously impressive, offering a classic thriller in an extraordinary setting that elevates the play beyond its already superb script. Witness for the Prosecution has already become a must-see tourist attraction, but it really is an excellent choice for anyone seeking a truly special theatrical experience at any time of year. The facts of the case are clear: it would be criminal to miss it.
Written by: Agatha Christie
Directed by: Lucy Bailey
Sound Design by: Mic Pool
Lighting Design by: Chris Davey
Design by: William Dudley
Produced by: Eleanor Lloyd Productions and Rebecca Stafford Productions
Witness for the Prosecution plays at London County Hall and is currently booking until 25 September. Further information can be found here.