‘I was pleased to find myself in the thick of it’: WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION  – County Hall ★★★★

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County Hall, London – until 31 March 2018

The courtroom is the marbled council chamber of the old County Hall: the story by Agatha Christie even hoarier. I missed this ultimately site-specific lark when it opened, possibly due to an edge of snoot. Because for God’s sake, all but infants must know the twist by now, from the Bergman film? Or the Christmas TV with Kim Cattrall? But the news of its extension, until March they say but quite possibly unto the edge of doom, and the fact that Lucy Bailey directed it resolved me to go to a Peak Tourist matinee.

It’s probably almost worth it for the majestic brass stair-rods alone on the grand climb up. Even more so when you’ve bought the cheapest seat in the cramped public gallery, peering around a pillar for under 15 quid, and then got upgraded (I think a coach party cancelled) to the ‘stalls’, which would have cost in the high 40s. I was pleased to find myself in the thick of it, peering closely at the suspiciously clean wig of the prosecuting barrister. But I wouldn’t have paid 95 quid for the jury box, though they looked immensely happy to be formally “sworn in”.

Bailey (of Titus Andronicus fame) is never one to dodge the gruesome, and in the thunderous musical chords of the opening she gives us the judge with a black cap and a gallows rising from the very floor (scene-shifting throughout is neat indeed, blokes in brown warehouse coats very well in period conjuring up just enough furniture for the barrister’s chambers). So facing the noose, the accused Mr Vole cowers and shrieks and faints at the very outset, thus making the uninitiated think they know how it ends.

They don’t. Agatha makes sure of that. Soon we are in chambers, with the chiselled patrician Defence Sir Wilfred (Richard Clothier, grandly vowelly about circumstaaa-aaarntial evidence). He decides to take on Rex v Vole, believing the humbly prole’didn’t kill the rich old Mrs French.

And so to open court, which is where the marmoreal and mahogany  Council Chamber stars.  Adorned even more gloriously by Julian Curry as  the judge, giving it the full traditional repertoire:  tortoise-peering over specs, meaningful throat- clearing,  and  that air of soothing judicial fairness we all long to believe in. Though let it be said, in this particular tale Agatha is not un-mocking of British justice.

 

It rocks on nicely, perhaps with a few longueurs when in both halves the evidence gets recapped, but the audience seemed grateful for that.  Certainly we were all taking to Lucy Phelps’ moody German refugee-wife Romaine, and purring a bit over the silver fox Clooneyesque integrity of Sir Wilf. And just as your mind starts to wander over yet another recap of the evidential recaps there’s  a shout, a cry of anger, a fierce chord, or a nightmare lighting effect to get it going again.

And after the interval, just as summing-up threatens and you start worrying about  a vast inconsistency which Agatha herself didn’t quite (a motivational nonsense) up in the gallery pops a foxy dea ex machina. Then another.  And so to the terrific denouement,   which the film slightly scamped but Ms Bailey certainly doesn’t.   Vole gets his best moment too, with a fag in hand.     All made me feel rather wistful for my childhood dream of barristering.   I always thought a horsehair wig ‘n pigtails would be very me, and dreamed of capturing a silver-fox like Clothier.    So oyez et terminez, all rise, happily.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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