Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Witness for the Prosecution

Jan 25, 2018

✭✭✭✭✩

by Agatha Christie, directed by Lucy Bailey

Rebecca Stafford Productions & Eleanor Lloyd Productions, Council Chamber, London County Hall, London, GBR

December 9, 2017-booking to September 1, 2019

Sir Wilfrid: “The question is whether you were lying then or are you lying now”

It may seem like dispraise to say that the real star of the latest revival of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution is its venue, but it is no insult. As directed by Lucy Bailey and acted by a top-notch troupe of seasoned veterans and promising newcomers, Christie’s 1953 play would hold an audience in its grip no matter where it was staged. The idea of producers Rebecca Stafford, a specialist in site-specific theatre, and Eleanor Lloyd of staging it in the Council Chamber of the London County Hall is brilliant. The chamber serves as a luxurious stand-in for the Old Bailey in Christie’s courtroom drama and thrillingly immerses the audience in the action. The choice of this venue only enhances the vividness of the already excellent production.

For those who don’t know it, the London County Hall is situated on the South Bank of the river Thames beside the London Eye and across from the Parliament buildings. Built in an Edwardian Baroque style it was opened in 1922 by King George V. It served at the headquarters for local London government for 64 years until Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986. In the centre of the Hall is the octagonal Council Chamber with seating for over 200 council members and four galleries overlooking the Chamber meant for the public and the press. The council seats, which I recommend, are broad, in red leather with wide, carved wood armrests and, except for the front row seats, each provided with small desks.

Not all of the action of Witness takes place in the courtroom. Three scenes occur in the chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., and one in a dimly lit area near Limehouse. For these scenes a thrust stage has been built from the magistrate’s desk forward over the small desks provided for council members in the front row. Entrances to this stage can be made from either side of the magistrate’s desk or from the long walkway that divides the councillor’s desks into two facing sections. When the thrust is not made up as Sir Wilfrid’s chambers, it serves as the dock where the prisoner is held. 

Director Lucy Bailey begins the play with a dream sequence, not in Christie’s text, in which a young man is taken up the stairs at the end of the thrust stage and the judge puts the “black cap” on his wig and sentences the man to be taken to a place of execution and hanged. A gallows rises out of the cleverly designed stage, a noose is dropped, the man’s head put in and there’s a blackout.

Following this disturbing prologue, we meet the young man, Leonard Vole (Jack McMullen)*, who has been accused of murdering an elderly woman Emily French. Vole’s solicitor, Mr. Mayhew (Roger Ringrose), tries to calm Leonard and tells him to tell his story to the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (David Yelland) exactly as he told it to him.

Vole became friends with Mrs. French when he helped her gather a stack of parcels she was carrying fell out of her hands. Soon he was visiting the lonely Mrs. French on a weekly or sometimes more than weekly basis and helping her with odd chores, playing cards or just chatting. Vole, a self-described “drifter”, regards Mrs. French as a kind of aunt.

The police have a fairly certain time of death for Mrs. French because the elderly woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie (Jules Melvin), returned unexpectedly from her night off and found her employer still bleeding from the head wound that killed her.

Vole’s alibi for that night is his wife Romaine (Catherine Steadman). Vole met Romain in Germany where he was stationed during the war. He married her there and brought her with him to England. Vole has never been able to settle down since retuning and has not held a steady job. He is currently unemployed.

When Vole leaves, Mayhew and Robarts agree that he is a fine young man and that his story is quite believable and Robarts agrees to take on Vole’s defence. They then meet Romaine Vole, who has come to see them. Quite unlike Vole, she is cool and calculating and says that if Leonard said he was with her then she will say so too, thus through her off-hand manner casting a shadow of doubt over Vole’s alibi.

To say any more about the swings and roundabouts that Christie has so carefully engineered would destroy the excitement of the play. Let’s simply say that Bailey has expertly directed the play and beautifully infused it with inexorably mounting tension.

The play is expertly acted down to the smallest roles. Billy Wilder’s 1957 film of the play may be its definitive film version, but its main flaw is that its stars Tyrone Power, then aged 43, as Vole and Marlene Dietrich, then aged 56, as his wife are far too old for their roles. Christie specifies the ages as 27 for Vole and 56 for the “elderly” Mrs. French. In the current stage production we have a Leonard and Romaine Vole more in line with Christie’s text and that makes Leonard’s view of a 56-year-old woman as his “aunt” more believable.

Jack McMullen, aged 26, is extremely convincing as Leonard Vole. Using a lower class accent and looking awkward in a suit and tie, McMullen wins us over immediately as an unpretentious innocent caught in a terrible misunderstanding. McMullen has a talent for making his eyes well up with tears when Vole contemplates the deadly fate that may await him that both makes him sympathetic and makes it seems completely believable that an older childless women would love to have him around.

As his wife Romaine, Catherine Steadman, is the total opposite. In her first meeting with Mr. Mayhew and Sir Wilfrid, she plays Romaine as an untrustworthy game-player willing to say whatever will help her husband, while never confirming that what she says is true or not. Steadman with a convincing German accent gives us the impression that Romaine is privately laughing at the English justice system and seems to justify the British characters’ casual xenophobia.

David Yelland makes Sir Wilfrid Robarts come across as so piercingly intelligent that no deception could ever pass by him undetected. Yelland’s Robarts fixes other characters with such an intent gaze he seems to be looking directly into their minds. Yelland gives Robarts’s speeches the force of unembellished eloquence yet he can ill conceal his anger when he feels he has caught a witness in a lie.

Philip Franks plays the prosecuting attorney Mr. Myers, Q.C., a man Robarts is said to enjoy defeating. Franks makes us see why. His Myers speaks and acts with an air of pomposity which, when punctured, causes him comically to shrivel into himself while he recoups his strength.

Of the various witnesses, the one, other than Romaine, who makes the greatest impression is Jules Melvin as Mrs. French’s imperious housekeeper Janet Mackenzie. Melvin’s Scots accent perfectly suits Mackenzie’s prim sternness. Melvin’ over-protective stance makes it easy to agree with Sir Wilfrid that the obvious loathing Mackenzie shows Vole stems from her fear of being displaced in her mistress’s affections.

Also deserving special mention is Patrick Godfrey as Mr. Justice Wainwright, who has clearly presided over so many criminal cases and so many cases fought between Sir Wilfrid and Mr. Myers that he is well aware of their habitual squabbles. Yet, Godfrey’s judge is fully engaged in the subject of the trial and really does seem, unlike some stage judges, that he does care that the trial unearth’s the truth.

I was lucky enough to have seen the 1957 film so long ago that I had forgotten the ending. I would therefore advise anyone planning to see the play not to see the movie beforehand or to read Christie’s 1925 short story on which the play and film are based. As the site-specific setting invites you, allow yourself to be part of the exciting events unfolding before your eyes as if you were a member of public attending the trial. If you love old-fashioned, well-crafted mysteries, you will find this production of Witness for the Prosecution full of intellectual puzzles and brought to life by impeccable acting in the grandest, most atmospheric setting for it imaginable. The subject may be murder, but, as usual with Christie, it’s also an enormous amount of fun.

*From March 27, 2018, the cast will be Harry Reid (Leonard Vole), Lucy Phelps (Romaine Vole), Richard Clothier (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Julian Curry (Mr. Justice Wainwright) and Peter Moreton (Mr. Mayhew). Philip Franks, Richard Attlee, Jules Melvin and Hywel Simons continue in their roles joined by new company members Charlotte Blackledge, Molly Jackson-Shaw, Parys Jordon, Tyler South, Antoinette Tagoe and Matt Weyland.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Patrick Godfrey as Mr. Justice Wainwright and Catherine Steadman as Romaine Vole, © 2017 Alastair Muir; the stage in the Council Chamber, © 2017 Sheila Burnett; Jack McMullen as Leonard Vole, ©2017 Sheila Burnett; David Yelland as Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Philip Franks as Mr. Myers, © 2017 Alastair Muir.

For tickets, visit www.witnesscountyhall.com.