Witness for the Prosecution

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Opera House, Manchester, and touring
(2010)

Production photo

Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie's favourite of her own plays—she adapted it herself from her own short story—is of course a crime thriller with an intricate plot and a murder mystery for the audience to ponder over, but this is not one of her detective stories; rather than trying to follow the workings of Poirot's 'little grey cells' or the inspired busybodying of Miss Marple, we are presented with a classic courtroom drama that takes place entirely in the chambers of defence council Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC and the courtroom of Mr Justice Wainwright.

The case is that of Leonard Vole, whose solicitor, Mr Mayhew, brings him to Robarts as he believes, correctly as it turns out, he is about to be arrested for murder, and when he tells his story he seems to have gone out of the way to provide himself with a motive but no alibi. His only corroboration that he was at home when the woman was killed is his devoted East German wife, who turns out to be not so devoted and then not his wife, enabling the prosecution to put her in the witness box to testify against him (at the time, a wife could not testify against her husband). Of course, this being Christie, there are many twists and turns, particular in the closing moments, that show that most things are not at all what they appeared to be, even after the trial is over and the verdict given.

In many ways, the form of a courtroom drama is an ideal one for Christie, as it is a place where it is perfectly natural for the characters to stand up and deliver long speeches spelling out their stories without having to have multiple scenes to show these events taking place—and keeping the mystery of whether they happened at all as each character says. This does make it a play very heavy on words with almost no physical action, but as it is all about the mystery and the puzzle, this is a good way of spelling out the details. The main twist at the end is a very good one, but then it is followed by a few more that are less credible, perhaps a couple of steps too far.

The play was originally produced in 1953, and there is a lot about this production that still seems stuck in the popular commercial theatre of more than half a century ago, and director Joe Harmston appears to have done very little to freshen it up for the twenty-first century. The characters are largely broad and crude with stereotypical working class and upper class characterisations and accents. Designer Simon Scullion has create a set full of fake wood panelling that looks fine and allows a smooth transition between chambers and the courtroom, but the layout of the courtroom looks completely wrong and makes communication between council, judge, defendant and witnesses look very awkward.

The production is touring with a large cast, many of whom sit around in the courtroom for the most of the time doing very little. Denis Lill is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, effortlessly making this sometimes-contrived dialogue sound natural and the thin character credible. Ben Nealon portrays the nice but dim Leonard Vole well with a wide-eyed naïvety that fits perfectly. Deborah Grant plays Romaine Vole rather like the female German officer in 'Allo 'Allo but it gets across the spirit of her character. There are some nice cameos from Peter Byrne as the judge, Simon Cole as Chief Inspector Hearne, Elizabeth Power as the victim's housekeeper and others in the thirteen-strong cast. However one of these comes on as a different character—it is difficult to say who without giving something away—who is played so over-the-top that it makes the defence team seem rather stupid for falling for it.

Ambassadors Theatres needs to have a good look at the experience it is giving its audiences in the Opera House. There was a freezing cold draught blowing through the theatre throughout the performance, only stopped by the safety curtain coming down at the interval. That, coupled with frequent banging of doors and loud conversations from outside the auditorium, the frequent comings and goings of front of house staff throwing light from the corridors across the auditorium and possibly the creakiest auditorium floor in England, doesn't help an audience to keep its focus on the action onstage.

This is a classic Agatha Christie puzzle in a world of middle class decorum where you can focus on the clues without being encumbered by emotional responses or social context. There are good performances that put across the situation well enough to draw you into the game of trying to solve the case with a smattering of well-placed humour. Unfortunately some decent performances are not served as well as they could be by a production that seems to have been put together rather like a flat-pack wardrobe: by following what is on the page accurately but without injecting any real imagination or enthusiasm into its assembly.

Reviewed by Sheila Connor at Woking and by Lizzie Singh in Coventry

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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