Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Lucy Bailey
Based on her own short story, Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama by the queen of mystery, Agatha Christie. It’s centred around the trial of Leonard Vole (Joe McNamara) accused of the murder of a middle-aged lady he recently befriended.
In a creative stroke of genius, the show starts from the moment you arrive at the unconventional setting for the play. Rather than a traditional theatre, Lucy Bailey has set her production in the grand octagonal Council Chamber of County Hall, the former home to the Greater London Authority, with the audience horseshoed around the main stage area.
There’s not much to say about the story without leading to plot spoilers, but Witness showcases Christie’s power of twists, turns and misdirection as well as anything she’s ever written. As the story unfolds, through some backstory and, most effectively, through the court case, the audience is taken on a whirlwind of emotions across all key cast members that deliver, on multiple occasions, actual gasps of shock and surprise.
Whilst the setting of the show plays a huge part in the feeling of witnessing a murder trial, Bailey’s subtly realistic direction truly immerses you in the story. The cast are in character from the moment you step into the building. Whether they are the focal point of the action or not, they are moving about, engaging with one another so that you truly feel you’re watching a real case. Barrister and solicitor passing notes to one another, police officers moving around the courtroom, stenographers and court aides shuffling papers and taking notes, the immersion into this world is flawless.
Whilst, essentially, an ensemble piece, the core cast are outstanding in delivering nuanced performances. McNamara is pitch perfect as the naïve victim, Leonard Vole. His femme fatale wife Romaine, played appropriately to pantomime proportions by Emer McDaid, and the victim’s bitter Caribbean house maid, deftly played by Yvonne Gidden, send the audience on a back-and-forth whodunit yo-yo ride.
But it is the legal and personal battle between the two barristers that drives the courtroom scenes. Their examining and cross examining of the witnesses delivers much of the tension that build up through the play. Miles Richardson is forceful as prosecuting QC and is contrasted by a more amiable defence QC, played by Jonathan Firth.
Witness is dramatic theatre at its very best. It is a show that has eschewed the bells and whistles so often associated with West End productions and focussed on telling its story in the most engaging and compelling way possible. The design and direction are done with a lightness that feels as if they aren’t there. The cast have immersed themselves completely into their roles and the result is something akin to hyper-reality, or, if there were such a thing, theatrical VR.
There are two Agatha Christie productions in London at the moment, but make no mistake, this is the only one worth watching.
Runs until 20 March 2022