Stepping into the chamber of the London County Hall is an experience akin to entering a courtroom.
Walking up carpeted stairs, and down marble corridors, then finally into the Chamber, one cannot help but feel imposed upon by the high ceilings, Ancient Greek-style pillars, ornately carved wood seats and crimson leather. You would, indeed, be forgiven for thinking you were about to witness landmark criminal proceedings.
If this scene was directly transplanted a mile or so down the road to the Royal Courts of Justice, it would not be an obscure occurrence. This appears to be the well-executed intention of director Lucy Bailey, in her staging of the adaptation of the Agatha Christie short, ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, in which the viewer finds themselves in the midst of a capital case for murder, brought against protagonist, Leonard Vole.
The old stomping ground of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council seems to be a location which would only be haunted by the ghosts of politics past, not one which would spring to mind for the staging of a production. However, Bailey only appears to seize this assumption and manipulate it in her favour. Upon entry to the Chamber, eyes are immediately drawn to the striking chair which bears the United Kingdom’s coat of arms, and seats the formidable judge who conducts the proceedings; his face often ominously highlighted by a somewhat macabre shadow. It seems this fact only further adds to the grave tone of the piece, as the audience becomes a passive yet entirely immersed spectator to the case.
For those who are not die-hard Agatha Christie fans, it may be difficult to contextualise the tone of this play before experiencing it first-hand. But if one was not struck by the setting for the proceedings, then the plot which was to follow would definitely grip the viewer upon the opening scene, where Christie and indeed, Bailey, throw the audience into the lion’s den – the heart of the action.
As goes for anyone who is in on a good murder mystery, explaining the plot blow by blow may only serve the purpose of ruining the ending, however, Witness for the Prosecution is aptly characterised by speculation. Watching the prisoner, Leonard Vole, mere feet away in the dock sparks whispers amongst the audience, something additionally simulated by the chatter played overhead.
Innocent? Guilty? Or perhaps a more interesting twist? The audience is forced to wait to discover.
But whilst the threat of death by hanging looms over the protagonist, on trial for befriending and killing Emily French, a rich ‘elderly’ lady in her 50s, one cannot help but feel connected to Leonard Vole. With his rheumy blue eyes and baby face, he insists women just want to ‘mother’ him, and protests his innocence staunchly throughout. The audience sees a number of characters jump to attack Vole, and in equal measure to his defence: Romaine Vole, the devoted wife; Janet McKenzie, the long-suffering housekeeper; Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer, and then, a mysterious blonde woman in the gallery…
All have a story to tell. Where will it lead?
Perhaps the most charismatic character and the highlight of the play is Sir Wilfred Robarts QC, played by Jasper Britton. With his strong and bold personality, Sir Wilfred’s delivery and humour adds well-needed levity to the austere nature of the proceedings. Remarks about how juries, particularly British people, ‘never trust foreigners’ are tongue-in-cheek, but seem timely in the current climate, despite the original text having been published in 1933. Given Sir Wilfred’s off-hand remarks and comic timing, it is arguable one finds themselves rooting for his successes more so than directed towards the protagonist.
Even so, as more and more revelations come to the fore, the plot remains well-constructed, almost as if Christie is referencing her own rock-solid legal cases presented to the audience throughout. When it comes to the crunch, all seems to rely upon the testimony of Mrs. Vole, Romaine, a bombshell with cropped hair and leather clothes. Transfixed, the audience watches as she ascends to the stand. But what will she have to say for the case?
The culture surrounding Christie texts and adaptations is difficult to ignore. Separated only by a river, Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ has played in Westminster for 66 years – a Roar favourite. Christie’s recurrent insistence of the audience being ‘Sworn to Secrecy’, as one is similarly reminded upon leaving London County Hall, makes sense upon the play’s denouement. This is a production full of the kind of ‘edge of your seat’ action which you will rarely find anywhere else, and the prospect of having the shocking ending spoiled is one which would fill any theatre-goer with despondence. What makes Witness for the Prosecution so ingenious is the fact that every audience member feels as if they are part of the jury. It is by our judgement that Leonard Vole, quite literally, lives and dies.
The reinvention of Christie’s classic by Lucy Bailey is a murderously good production which cuts a swathe through the setting of County Hall. With suspense, suspicion and secrets abound, you’re unlikely to leave the Chamber anything less than wholly satisfied.