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Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall | Review

We have the best system of justice in the world!”, exclaims Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C.

Crime and Punishment. Truth and Lies. It’s no wonder Agatha Christie’s thrilling courtroom drama, which premiered in London’s West End in 1953, is still captivating audiences today, and has been doing so in Lucy Bailey’s production since 2017. Yes, the characters might be a little dated and, a bit like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you do wonder how much of the plot would still be the same if everyone was talking over WhatsApp, but we are just hooked by a good crime mystery aren’t we? And Bailey’s production feels reminiscent of one of the many television adaptations of Christie’s work, but with the extra twist of theatricality: Mic Pool’s sound design taking us from scene to scene with pulsing orchestrations, Chris Davey’s lighting transporting us to foggy, green streets, and casting shadows on and across the faces in the court. Of course, the whole show is also set in the once-derelict and dusty City Hall, so the audience really feels immersed in the drama, surrounding the “stage” on plush seating, or for some even sitting in the juror’s box.

Lauren O'Neil as Romaine Vole in Witness for the Prosecution (photo by Ellie Kurttz)
Lauren O’Neil as Romaine Vole in Witness for the Prosecution (photo by Ellie Kurttz).

A young man Leonard Vole, whose gift and curse is his handsome babyface that people can’t help but want to mother, is accused of the murder of a woman in her fifties, Miss Emily French, a blow behind the ear knocking her to her death on a Friday evening at her flat in Hampstead. Her housekeeper Janet Mackenzie, played brilliantly by Mandi Symonds, certainly thinks Vole is guilty, and his enigmatic German wife, whilst committed to defending his innocence at first, seems to have something to hide. The situation becomes even more complex when it’s discovered Miss French left all of her wealth to Vole. His defence lawyer Wilfrid Robarts (Owen Oakeshott) isn’t totally sure what to believe, despite the words of his maid, and everyone else it seems, that he just ‘doesn’t seem the type’.

In this new cast, Joshua Glenister plays Vole with great charisma. He appears genuinely concerned for his life, sweating through his first encounter with Oakeshott in the chambers. Oakeshott is equally compelling in his performance, much of the play’s tension builds relying on his exchange with the prosecutor Mr Myers (Richard Teverson) during Christie’s lengthy court scenes. Teverson is snappy on the cues, although given the exposition we get about the competitive nature of Robarts’s relationship with Myers, I was expecting something more menacing. I suppose there’s the risk of slipping into caricature, and perhaps it’s the stark realism of the performances that make the plot twists that much more shocking (although there were certainly a few people laughing at the final reveal).

One of the troubles with these older plays is the writing of women, and it’s fascinating that Peter Saunders – the play’s producer when it originally premiered – suggested the idea of making Robarts female, an idea which Christie rejected. Lauren O’Neil as Romaine Vole, Leonard’s wife, totally changes the power dynamics of the scene. When meeting with Robarts and Mr Mayhew (Peter Landi) in their chamber, she takes a confident seat atop the desk, her legs confidently crossed and attitude totally chilled. Her performance could feel slightly overplayed at times, but I think it fits within the style of the whole show and does take us back to an earlier form of theatrical melodrama (even if this does feel a little cringe nowadays). O’Neil and Glenister certainly feel like an odd married couple, but I guess that’s the idea? Symonds as Janet Mackenzie gives one of the most enjoyable performances in the show during her witness testimony. She holds great command of the audience, and her disdain and distrust for Vole certainly isn’t watered down. It seems very easy to brush off her testimony, in a play which very much becomes about who you think you can trust versus who perhaps you should.

Lengthy scene changes are militarily choreographed, the actors setting up the chambers with flowery benches and a long rug, whilst Pool’s orchestral music plays over; a bit like one of those long credit intros to a Netflix drama. The music complements the grandeur of the setting. Surround sound speakers also work cleverly to produce gasps and mutters from the court, really immersing us in the action.

I am always at least a little sceptical of old British play revivals, particularly ones which are so embedded in the language of the times. Is Bailey’s production a radical reinvention of Christie’s work? No. And based on her interview in the programme, she doesn’t want it to be that either. She wants to be truthful to the text. And this production does that very well. I imagine for audiences who are big fans of the television adaptations of her work, this would be a really exciting, immersive experience, and a great night out.

4 stars

Review by Joseph Winer

Since opening in September 2017, the acclaimed theatre production of Witness for the Prosecution has captured the imagination of thousands, gripped by the case of Leonard Vole, who is accused of murder in cold blood. Director Lucy Bailey thrillingly places the audience in the thick of the action in the historic London County Hall as Christie’s enthralling tale of justice, passion and betrayal unfolds around them in an immersive courtroom setting. Now welcoming its seventh cast, Witness for the Prosecution will be celebrating its 5th Anniversary in the West End this September.

SIMON BUTTERISS – Carter / Dr Wyatt
VICKI DAVIDS – Greta / Miss Clegg
WILLIAM DONALDSON – Clerk of the Court
JAMES HAYES – Mr Justice Wainwright
NICK HARDIE – Policeman / Plain Clothes Detective
OWEN OAKESHOTT – Sir Wilfred Robarts Q.C
LAUREN O’NEIL – Romaine Vole
MANDI SYMONDS – Janet Mackenzie
NAOMI TAYLOR – Stenographer
MATT WEYLAND – Inspector Hearne
DONNAVAN YATES – Court Officer 2

Eleanor Lloyd Productions and Rebecca Stafford Productions present
Witness for the Prosecution
By Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Designed by William Dudley
Lighting Design by Chris Davey
Sound Design by Mic Pool

London County Hall
The Chamber, County Hall, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 7PB

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