It isn’t even a proper theatre, but London County Hall is indisputably one of the best venues in the capital in which to see a play (with some of the comfiest seats), especially if that production happens to be crime writer Agatha Christie’s courtroom tale Witness for the Prosecution.
Lucy Bailey’s staging leans into the feel of this stunning location from the outset, going for the gothic with dramatic lighting, a noose and fog when setting out a deadly nightmare for Leonard Vole (Harry Giubileo) – the outwardly happy chappy who stands accused of murdering a lady named Emily French. The whole room is very much the set, but if we are to concern ourselves with the wooden stage, that alone is well designed by William Dudley, allowing for a defence stand and other wooden structures to be erected.
Just as impressive is Bailey’s direction of the entire company. Yes, the main focus is the questioning and cross examining of witnesses on stage and in the witness box, but if you were to cast your eyes away from the stage, you can see the police guard next to the defendant signalling his frustration to a court officer and the defence solicitor trying to calm his client down.
On that note, two minor legal gripes I have is that not once is Vole warned by the judge that his continued protestations might constitute contempt of court, another is that the jury aren’t excluded during a deliberation over the admissibility of last-minute evidence secured by the defence (you wouldn’t want them to be influenced by information which isn’t ‘heard’ in court, of course). Then again, seeing as you can pay a little bit extra to be part of the jury – a nice touch – one imagines they wouldn’t want to be kicked out the audience for the sake of legal accuracy.
Even Agatha Christie’s work requires the suspension of disbelief to an extent, then, but it still displays the hallmarks and twists often associated with the acclaimed crime writer, where the ‘whodunnit’ takes place in the witness box, rather than in a specific location or mansion; for example. Vole’s manipulative lover Romaine (Madeleine Walker) testifies for the prosecution (hence the title) and would happily stitch up the prisoner, while housekeeper Janet Mackenzie (Tracey Wilkinson) could have killed Ms French after learning she changed her will to give her money to Vole.
Ultimately, the play is at its best in the courtroom, where it has – save for the exceptions already mentioned – awe-inspiring authenticity, and helpfully emphasises the main plot points to make it accessible and easy to follow along. The countless objections from both barristers challenging the other on their questioning is just as exciting, with Jo Stone-Fewings delivering a standout performance as defence barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts with his vibrant veracity.
Unfortunately, while the courtroom allows for the central arguments from both sides to become clear as day, it’s in the play’s abrupt conclusion where everything feels rushed and unclear (I leave this deliberately vague so as to avoid spoilers). A quick search online tells me that’s somewhat deliberate and an alteration made by Christie herself, but I can’t help but feel like Bailey, who is so precise in her directing here, could have dedicated more time to this, to round off what is otherwise a tense and naturally theatrical production.
Witness for the Prosecution is now playing until 28 April 2024. No information about accessible performances is available on the production’s official website.
Production Images: Jay Brooks.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.