‘Witness For the Prosecution’ started its life as a short story called ‘Traitor Hands’. Agatha Christie herself thought the story wasn’t anything special, but her theatre producer Peter Saunders, thought he could develop the story into a courtroom drama for the stage. Christie challenged him to adapt the story into a play and he took her up on it. She dismissed his attempt but went ahead and wrote her own version which became one of her greatest achievements as a dramatist. The play received its West End debut at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1953 and the following year opened on Broadway.
The setting at the London County Hall could not be bettered for its authenticity. The courtroom feel, fits perfectly with the play’s location at the Old Bailey, where the courtroom officials and Judge are seated at the Bench, and the seating for the twelve jurors is to the side. It is hard to believe that this was a disused Council Chamber gathering dust, and it’s a wonderful feeling to think that theatre has helped to bring it back into use.
The drama of the location goes hand-in-hand with the dramatic nature of the story. Leonard Vole (Joe McNamara) is accused of murdering Emily French, a widow who he had befriended, and the motive for the murder is supposed to be that he was due to inherit her wealth. The play begins with a brief visit to the court scene, which is used as a method of communicating what could happen if he is found guilty and handed a death sentence. It puts the audience on the edge of their seat at the beginning, as they have an immediate understanding of the gravity of the situation.
Vole needs to consult a solicitor and he appoints Mr Mayhew (Teddy Kempner) who in turn, joins forces with Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC (Jonathan Firth), to represent him in court. The legal team discuss the case with Vole, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not going to be an easily won case, and there are certain issues to contend with, such as – why did Vole never introduce his wife, Romaine Vole (Emer McDaid) to Mrs French, if they were such good friends? Why did he look after her financial affairs if she could look after them herself? Getting to know Vole’s wife is a priority for Robarts and he finds her intriguing to say the least.
The set was almost pre-designed by the previous occupiers, but the staging in the centre has given the production designer William Dudley, the versatility to adapt the set easily to accommodate the solicitor’s office, and the docklands which takes its form from the use of lighting and sound designed by Chris Davey and Mic Pool. The play almost feels immersive with the sound beamed around the speakers positioned around the space in the seating and contributes to the overall feeling of watching a real trial. To make the play even more experiential, you can buy VIP tickets which allow you to be a member of the Jury. The costumes are on point and the mannerisms of the leading legal counsel; Sir Wilfred Robarts (Jonathan Firth), Mr Mayhew (Teddy Kempner), Mr Myers (Miles Richardson) and Mr Justice Wainwright (Martin Turner), command their roles so believably, that it is easy to forget that you are not in fact in a real court room.
Joe McNamara as the accused Leonard Vole in his West End debut, pleaded and begged to be taken seriously, and sometimes I felt that this went a little too far, but it did help to make the twist at the end, even more shocking.
In true Agatha Christie style, the suspense built slowly, with red herrings thrown in to divert the observer from the story’s real path. The excellent use of County Hall and direction by Lucy Bailey make this a completely unique experience, and the play’s return is very welcome.
To find out more about the play and to book tickets, go to https://witnesscountyhall.com/
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 29th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★