Agatha Christie – murderously good in the perfect setting

Review: Witness For The Prosecution, London County Hall

The cast of Witness for the Prosecution. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.
The cast of Witness for the Prosecution. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

One of the most magical pieces of London theatre I have ever seen was The Railway Children staged, a few years ago, on a real platform in Waterloo station.

This production of Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution comes blessed with a similar stroke of genius in its inception.

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It is staged – hugely adding to absolutely everything – in the magnificent main chamber in London County Hall, the perfect substitute for the Old Bailey.

And the fact that we, as the audience, pretty much surround the stage, adds considerably to our investment in it all as Leonard Vole (Joe McNamara excellent in his West End stage debut) sits accused of murder, the shadow of the gallows hanging over him.

McNamara convincingly creates a Vole baffled that anyone could accuse him of killing poor Miss French, the elderly widow he had befriended and to whom he had become a frequent visitor. Vole admits he could appear a drifter; he admits he had a scheme he was hoping she might invest in; but no, he most certainly didn’t bludgeon her to death. Indeed, he went to the police the moment he heard she was dead…

But this being Christie, there are twists and turns aplenty – particularly when his wife takes the stand. The setting, the performances, everything magnifies the sheer drama of the moment.

The meat of the play, though, is in the battle of the barristers, Jonathan Firth as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC for the defence, Miles Richardson as Mr Myers QC for the prosecution.

For them, the trial is a chance to play out a personal rivalry – and though they are rarely head to head, Firth and Richardson are brilliant as they strive to undermines the succession of witnesses.

Firth gives us an almost skipping delight in the argument; Richardson does a wonderful line in incredulousness, a weary “must we listen to this nonsense” subtext.

Their performances are a delight in a show which is murderously good.

We might think we know where it is all going, but we would do well to remember that Dame Agatha is the great manipulator. We will be thinking what she wants us to think. She, meanwhile, will always be several steps ahead.

It’s a great play which constantly threatens to pull the rug from under you; and the setting does the rest. There’s no higher drama than the drama in which a man’s life is at stake; and London County Hall is absolutely the perfect venue.