Sunday, 1 May 2022

REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall

At the risk of going out on a limb, most homes will have an Agatha Christie novel buried in a cupboard. With masterful plotting and subtle clues dropping like well-timed grenades, there are few writers who can hold the attention as well. Christie’s style lends itself to stage productions where the narrative can be distilled into key scenes. ‘The Mousetrap’ remains the world’s longest-running play. Every tourist has the show on their ‘to do’ list such is the author’s enduring appeal. Witness for the Prosecution was adapted from a short story by Christie and looks set to join the ‘appointment theatre’ club. Originally staged in 1953 it was eclipsed by the Billy Wilder directed big-screen version. Released four years later the film became a classic featuring Hollywood icons including Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power. 

County Hall is a magnificent building on London’s South Bank and was formerly home to the Greater London Council. Designed by Ralph Knott in the Edwardian Baroque style, a beautiful chamber emerges as the play’s setting. With an ornate finish in wood and marble, it becomes a perfect stand-in for Court no.1 at the Old Bailey. A subtle, haunting soundtrack kicks in as the lights dim and the story gently unfolds.

Leonard Vole (Joshua Glenister) has been charged with the murder of Emily French, a wealthy widow without heirs to her estate. He maintains his innocence and approaches Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C. (Owen Oakeshott) for representation. The case against Vole appears strong as means, motive and opportunity loom large in his account of events. His mysterious German wife Romaine (Lauren O’Neil) appears to give him an alibi at the time of the murder. Robarts’ intellectual curiosity is suitably aroused and decides to take the case. However, at trial Romaine appears as a witness for the prosecution. It is also revealed that Vole and Romaine were not officially married, undermining his defence and their creditability as a couple.

An excellent, well-drilled cast ensures a smooth transition between scenes. They make full use of the walkways and provide an immersive feel to proceedings. ‘Carry on’ style brown overcoats are donned to effect a swift removal and placement of furniture. It bears all the hallmarks of the author’s prowess as a storyteller. A literate script that crackles with tension has a satisfying twist to keep the audience on its toes. What raises this superb production to exalted status is the venue. A conventional theatre would be unable to construct the setting offered by County Hall. It feels like a courtroom and doesn’t rely on an artificial set. Having sat as a juror at the Old Bailey, I can testify the effect is just as gripping and awe-inspiring. An added bonus is the sumptuous armchair seats and plenty of legroom. Well done County Hall!

Review by Brian Penn

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Row F, Seat 155 | Price of Ticket: £62.50

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