An Agatha Christie legal drama set in a 1920’s Courtroom? You might as well watch Death on the Nile on a boat? Or Murder on the Orient Express on a train? But as someone who is sceptical of site-specific theatre, this experience blew me away. All rise for a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Christie’s works are not all created equally sadly and although personally I enjoy Witness for the Prosecution as a play/film (if done unimaginatively), it can be a bit of a slog. Following the salacious murder trial of Leonard Vole, and introducing his cold as ice German wife (played by none other than Marline Dietrich in the 1957 film), the show builds slowly to a truly magical twist at the end (my lips are sealed!). Setting it in the real-life County Hall courtroom, however, is genius, adding a real sense of the danger at the heart of a court case and raising the stakes tenfold. I really was on the edge of my surprisingly comfortable leather pew as the show builds its tension painfully slowly and with audience members in the round, the accusative atmosphere was as fraught as it was satisfying.
This is a simple and effective concept and ticks all the boxes it aims for. We have sharp suits and power blouses, blustering lawyers, murder, sultry villains, hypocritical 50s morality, slight melodrama, intrigue and deception (no butlers, unfortunately). Lucy Bailey’s use of moving set pieces, pace and lighting within the very specific space is clever and everything involved is slick and well oiled.
The shining stars are Jasper Britton playing the enigmatic lead lawyer, Sir Wilfred Robert QC, crafting energy out of what could be a very dull role. Then we have Emma Rigby playing the complex cornerstone character Romaine Vole (the cruel unfeeling wife); she does this admirably, but my praise has its limitations. Without the flashbacks added into the Dietrich film her character feelings not as fleshed out. Nevertheless, Rigby grapples with this complex diamond of a character with bravery and gusto. Romaine is the saving grace of the story and a lot relies on (including her husband’s neck) her frigid exterior yet inner fury. A deviation from some of the classic Christie female heroine/villains, her contradictory mix of good and evil is delectable to watch.
Surrounded by all the accoutrements of a courtroom, this play really comes alive and every choice maximises the veracity of this experience, from the use of surround sound speakers to having the jury comprised of 12 real audience members. It is imaginative, charming and invigorates this dusty old classic. Grab a ticket for a truly unique evening out, and I’ll see you in court!
Witness for the Prosecution is playing at London County Hall until 1 September 2019.