A dark new Agatha Christie adaptation has become something of a Christmas tradition, and even though the BBC only started this tradition two years ago with an excellent multi-part interpretation of And Then There Were None, it has fast become an established and much anticipated highlight of the festive schedule. So, disappointment ensued this year when the latest Christie production, Ordeal by Innocence was indefinitely shelved. Fortunately, Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Witness for the Prosecution is still riding high at London’s County Hall and is a charming substitute for the void in the TV listings.
Adapted from her own short story, Agatha Christie wrote a theatrical version of Witness for the Prosecution first performed in 1953, and while these days we’re more used to seeing the stories involving her most famous detectives as TV movies – or with the advent of Kenneth Branagh’s latest venture as actual movies – this new stage version, inventively located in an underused and unexpected London venue makes for an enjoyably twisty tale of murder and intrigue.
Wealthy widow Emily French has been murdered and Leonard Vole stands accused of the crime. Vole claims they were good friends and he was at home at the time of the murder, but with plenty of witnesses ready to testify against him, can Vole’s defence team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Mr Mayhew, prove his innocence? But then Vole’s mysterious wife Romaine is called to given evidence and the case is turned on its head.
At press night back in October, Lucy Bailey’s production divided the critics, with some disliking what they saw as an old-fashioned structure and heavy-handed approach, while others loved it’s classic and meticulous control of the courtroom action that focused on the aftermath of a murder rather than the deed itself. And, depending on your preference to see the action or hear it reported, this version will compare favourably or unfavourably with last year’s BBC dramatization that took the short story rather than the play as its starting point, and recreated the build-up to the murder as well as the court-based action in a more character-focused piece.
By contrast, Christie’s play is driven by procedure, demonstrating the fragility of evidence presented in courtrooms in cases of capital crime and has much in common with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men in the way it examines the anatomy of justice and how prejudice has to be overcome. The case itself could be about anything, but what Christie wants you to see is how the ultimate punishment can hinge on the brilliance of lawyers to twist the scantest evidence to make a case for the guilt or innocence of the accused. And, deliberately, like a real jury, the audience is not permitted to see the crime, instead Christie only wants us to hear its details as court testimony, delivered by witnesses and framed by lawyers, forcing you to question how much you can ever really know without being there.
In this light, some of the harsher reviewers for this show can be put into perspective, if you actively try to compare this to the 2016 TV version and expect to see a Christie story that unpicks the characters and tries to understand their motives, then it will certainly disappoint. But, this play is doing something else entirely and Bailey’s approach stands apart as a stylish and savvy revival that has plenty to say about the failures of the criminal justice system.
The use of County Hall, the former home of London’s local government, which is normally closed to the public is an inspired one, and Witness for the Prosecution takes place in the former Council Chamber, which looks like a courtroom with raised platforms for the judge and clerks as well as an actual witness box, making this a combination of theatrical experience and Open House Weekend. With the addition of a central raised stage amidst the three-quarter round seats, the grandly imposing debating chamber of marble columns and ornate design is a lovely substitute for the Old Bailey, adding plenty of atmosphere to the story.
The action largely takes place between Sir Wilfrid’s chambers and the courtroom, and unlike most Christie TV adaptations you never see the murder or the victim, everything is discussed in retrospect. Some of the criticisms of this production concerned the length of the scene changes, and while occasionally they take a couple of minutes as stagehands roll out carpet and deliver chairs, they don’t detract much from the drama of the case. All venues require compromises of some kind, and lengthy scene changes are only a problem if they interrupt the flow, which in this case they largely don’t. On balance, the use of County Hall adds considerably more to the performance than its limitations detract, and Bailey shrewdly uses the space to enhance the themes of the play.
As Leonard Vole, Jack McMullen has one of the toughest roles and must maintain the audience’s interest in his case without giving away the solution. It’s not an easy balance but McMullen does very well to maintain the idea of a young man fighting for his life and genuinely scared by the weight of the circumstantial evidence, but at the same time he allows the audience to see that he may be capable of the things the witnesses claim which adds to the escalating tension, as well as reinforcing Christie’s notion that evidence and fact don’t always align.
Leading the defence team, David Yelland is wonderfully wry as Sir Wilfrid, wanting to believe in his client’s innocence but knowing how the game must be played in court. We’re given some insight into his thinking during the scenes outside the courtroom, and he has many of the most humorous lines, but unlike the BBC adaptation, Sir Wilfrid here is a servant of the crown, he has a job to do and aspects of his personality – his confidence, his disregard for the approach of the prosecution lawyer and his slightly world-weary acceptance of human behaviour – are only revealed by Yelland where they intersect with the performance of his job, and are indeed only the things his client or the jury would see or know of him in court.
His counterpart, Mr Myers is given a bulldog ferocity by Philip Franks who is a deliberately showier, if less skilled lawyer than Sir Wilfrid. Myers thunders at witnesses and breaks protocol repeatedly by making leading statements and putting words in their mouths (for which objections are frequently raised), which Franks suggests is due to Myer’s arrogance, using a more aggressive but ultimately less nuanced approach. But it does make for entertaining exchanges and many of the productions best moments come from watching Franks and Yelland squeezing and flipping evidence, as witness statements are shaped and redirected by the competing lawyers.
Catherine Steadman’s Romaine is a more difficult role to place, and has to be deliberately seen as an outsider or a strange presence. The character is German in a very English setting and her ‘otherness’ is key to the way in which the audience perceives her evidence. Steadman mostly creates this quite well, and her straight-talking Romaine always seems in control, brusque but unwilling to conform to English niceties. It is a fine line, though, between distinctiveness and exaggeration, with Steadman’s performance occasionally becoming a little cartoony, and by rushing the rather dramatic ending, Romaine feels like the least real character in an otherwise convincing production.
With ticket prices from a reasonable £10 and the show extended for nearly a year until September there’s plenty of time to catch this enjoyable new interpretation. If booking for some of the gallery seats, do take note of the restricted view information which is very clear about which areas of the stage the marble pillars will obscure, while other seats give you a perfect view for £25. So, if you felt Christmas was missing the traditional Agatha Christie adaptation, this production of Witness for the Prosecution is a rare chance to see a carefully-considered and executed Christie play in an unusual but well-chosen setting. As London will see with Quiz later in the year, Bailey’s production reminds us that justice and truth are not always the same thing.
Witness for the Prosecution is at County Hall until 16 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.