County Hall, London – until 11 March 2018
Firebrand mayor Ken Livingstone was railing at his arch enemy, Maggie Thatcher, the last time voices were raised in The Chamber, at London’s County Hall.
Now this sumptuous and august council chamber, once the beating heart of democracy and political debate, has become arguably the country’s grandest pop-up theatre hosting a riveting new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama, Witness for the Prosecution.
What better venue to have the protagonists in this enthralling production play to the gallery? Literally.
The impassioned arguments from the immaculately spoken David Yelland and his nemesis, Philip Franks, as silks Robarts and Myers, fill the room and echo down the corridors with the same power and persuasion that shaped local government policy.
This impressive chamber has been turned, for the purposes of the production, into The Old Bailey, and William Dudley’s simple set design only serves to enhance an already magnificent backdrop.
The audience, which included, at this week’s opening, Christie’s premier detective, a strictly off-duty Hercule Poirot (actor David Suchet testing his little grey cells and loving every minute of it), are seated around a thrust stage in the luxuriously deep-padded leather chairs once occupied by members of the Greater London Council.
This amphitheatre, dedicated to justice and truth, is the perfect setting for the murder trial of Leonard Vole, an opportunist and Lothario, who is accused of killing wealthy Hampstead widow, Emily French, in a bid to get his hands on her cash.
“Perhaps this is all a dream,” he says, dumbfounded that the police would think he did it.
“This is England. You don’t get convicted for things you haven’t done.”
Some of the courtroom procedure and behaviour doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but, in Christie’s fictional world, it more than passes muster.
The case is being decided by Mr Justice Wainwright and the perfectly cast Patrick Godfrey is the epitome of a crusty old judge. “What’s a cat brush”? He asks blankly. “A brush for cats m’lord.”
Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (Yelland) has been persuaded to take the case after meeting the young Vole (Jack McMullen) in his chambers and being convinced of his innocence.
The personable and eager-to-help Vole actually went to the police himself when he heard about the murder of the ‘little old lady’ (she’s only 56 for god’s sake) who he had befriended over dropped shopping.
He’s tearful, in shock, uncomprehending that he has been accused of killing a woman (over the back of the head with the eponymous blunt instrument) who treated him like a surrogate son or nephew.
Besides which he has his German wife, actress Romaine (Catherine Steadman), to give him an alibi.
Robarts can’t wait to get started especially if it means bringing his hated opposition, the ambitious, glory-seeking, prosecutor, Mr Myers QC (Franks) down a peg.
So the stage is set for a trial which will either send Vole to the gallows or give him his freedom. It all hinges on the evidence and testimony from Romaine (Steadman with a gloriously OTT accent) and the vindictive Scottish housekeeper.
David Yelland is outstanding as the defence barrister, bringing a real gravitas to the part. I’d hire him in an instant.
“What a lovely voice you have,” says a mysterious woman offering the lawyer new key evidence. “I could listen to you all night. You should be on the stage” Well, precisely.
The intimidating Myers (Franks, glaring out from behind gold-rimmed glasses), frequently goes for the jugular, only to be rebuffed by the animated Robarts.
McMullen and Steadman play their parts to perfection. He professes his innocence, a wronged man, terrified of being found guilty, while she is coolly indifferent to her husband’s fate.
Even a member of the public, acting as jury foreman, delivers a faultless turn.
This is a superbly tense thriller, tautly directed by Lucy Bailey, that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It’s aided by some terrifically dramatic music that only heightens the suspense.
Witness for the Prosecution contains all of Christie’s trademark red-herrings and plot twists to keep you guessing right until the end.
A terrific night’s entertainment and all the better for its inspired location (County Hall is a theatre-lover’s dream with out-sized comfy seats and a plenteous number of loos).
Witness for the Prosecution runs at The Chamber, County Hall until March 11.
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