County Hall, London – until 11 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Paf Mohammed
The first crime uncovered in Witness for the Prosecution is that this amazing space, the glorious council chamber of the LCC then GLC at County Hall has not been pressed into service for site specific theatre more often. It’s one of the noblest rooms in London with carved wooden seats and desks, bronze window details and a soaring marble-pillared cupola. What do they use it for? Do they occasionally remove the dust sheets so Ken Livingstone can sit on his old throne and touch himself while recalling his glory days as Leader?
If anything can snatch back Agatha Christie from the television costume drama, it’s this tremendous production of her 1953 thriller directed at a spanking pace by Lucy Bailey in the atmospheric formality of the Chamber. It is astonishing that this wonderful venue hasn’t been commandeered for every courtroom drama from To Kill A Mockingbird to Twelve Angry Men.
The theatricality of the law meets its perfect match in such an old and famously stagey play, but the focus of the excellent cast led by David Yelland, and the eerie atmospherics in Mic Pool’s sound design eclipse anything you’d see on the BBC on a Sunday afternoon.
Jack McMullen’s hapless jobless Leonard Vole befriended an elderly lady he helped pick up some parcels, she turns out to be rich and lonely and her sudden death is pinned on him. Until the alibi from his German wife is tested on the stand, the clash of the legal titans pits Yelland’s suave patrician calm with prosecutor Philip Franks’ camp scorn and you really don’t know till the final scene which will prevail.
Since the accused must sit silently through his own trial McMullen has little to do except look hurt or angry, but he does it well, and a new opening scene which anticipates his own hanging reminds us vividly what was at stake in 1953. Christie wrote ‘suspicious foreigners’ into a lot of her pieces, and none of them were very subtly drawn. Catherine Steadman makes Leonard’s wife Romaine undoubtedly fierce, but it’s a bit more shouty and aggressive than the period suggests.
William Dudley’s set is a clever addition to the furnishings of the council chamber – a small thrust that serves as the dock, the lawyer’s office, and a back alley behind The Grapes at Limehouse, ironically now owned by theatrical knight Ian McKellen. Dudley always procures first rate carpentry, and the way everything slots together and the slickness of the sprinting stage crew makes even the scene changes a pleasure to watch.
If you don’t know the play, you’ll be thrilled. If you do know it, you’ll still be impressed: it’s that good.