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Witness for the Prosecution

Agatha Christie
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and touring
(2010)

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The Belgrade Theatre, newly refurnished, must surely be one of the most beautiful modern regional theatres we have. Under the Artistic Direction of Hamish Glen, the theatre has attracted to its boards such luminaries as Sir Trevor Nunn to great acclaim. It is obvious that the Belgrade now sees itself as a serious home of the arts.

Can they really justify this with a series of touring murder mystery types and the ever popular Christmas panto? With Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, it seems the answer is yes.

Bill Kenwright has produced this gripping and engrossing play with a fine director and a solid cast and the result is a most enjoyable whodunit evening of theatre. The play stars Lisa Kay (who replaces Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle's War fame and therefore had a hard task to make up for the audience's disappointment from the start) as the unfeeling and cold wife, who deliberately tries to have her husband convicted of murder. She is excellent from beginning to end and she has an extremely unsympathetic character and a strong German accent to contend with.

Her husband is Ben Nealon, playing a loveable fool pleading for his life, with Denis Lill and Robert Duncan (Drop the Dead Donkey) as his legal team trying to get him out of the hangman's noose. They are also brilliantly cast by director, Joe Harmston, who possesses the rare skill of letting the play speak for itself.

It is not overly directed. There are no meaningful interludes or unnecessary hysteria or nervous breakdowns. There is simply a court room drama mystery (superbly written) unfolding. The direction is clean and clear. You can always hear the actors, you can always see them. The staging is such that there are no distractions from the action, the audience can listen to the intricate plot and be swept away with the story.

The set is practical and cleverly managed. At floor level we have the chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC, played by Lill and his wood panelling doubles up nicely for the dock and the jury above. The lighting is also well managed and contributes to the success of the play, in chambers it's a little dark and intimate, in court; stark honest daylight.

The play begins rather poorly with an over set up of the situation by minor characters that hold us back from the action. As working class figures in a professional office of law, they stand out as rather hopeless caricatures, both in writing and delivery. However, that is of small note and both actors doubled up in more interesting and substantial roles later in the play.

As with any Agatha Christie, there are the clues you pick up and the clues you don't and a very clever twist at the end that produced not one but two audible gasps from the audience.

What was delightful about this show was that, without an unending score by Lord Lloyd Webber, or a terrifying social message on climate change or the need for the director to show off with huge background video projections, everyone in the theatre had a good night watching a play. There was nothing showy about the writing, the direction or the acting, just an excellent mystery with lots of believable but surprising twists that kept the audience guessing right up to the end.

The man next to me in the theatre commented as I was leaving 'That's the first time I've been to the theatre without sleeping!' More of this please.

"Witness for the Prosecution" runs until 12 June 2010

Reviewed by Sheila Connor at Woking and by David Chadderton in Manchester

Reviewer: Lizzie Singh