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Witness for the Prosecution: A Theatre Review

Updated: Mar 10

London County Hall, Belvedere Road. Photograph: Mina Chan/The Channel

We were stunned when we stepped into the London County Hall's repurposed Council Chamber, where Lucy Bailey's production of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution was set to play. The luxurious leather red seats, the imposing judge's bench, and the cold, lonesome beam of light shining on a three-legged stool upon the thrust stage set the solemn tone of the two-hour performance. The play began with a gripping intensity Agatha Christie fans are familiar with--the spring of the gallows from the stage and the cries of Leonard Vole foreshadowing a tragic end. Is this the beginning of the end for our leading man? We shall see.

Pre-performance stage set. Photograph: Mina Chan/The Channel

The play developed rapidly, one event quickly spanning another as the story unfolded itself: our protagonist for the evening, Leonard Vole (Joe McNamara) is on trial for the murder of an Emily French within her own home, who conveniently left him as the sole benefactor of her fortune. Despite the aid of the legendary Sir Wilfrid Robarts' (Jonathan Firth) aid, his unfortunate circumstances place him as the main suspect, with his alibi solely dependent on his wife Romaine (Emer McDaid).

We were delighted with the layout of the room, as the unique seating of the audience quickly discarded our identity as theatre-goers and immersed ourselves into the trial as the public gallery to pass judgment as turn after turn is revealed. The lighting by Chris Davey and sound design by Mic Pool only added to the arresting performance as the subtle shifts in light, and background noise deepened our perception of our surroundings.

The stage presence of the actors does the renowned play justice. We were particularly enthralled with Jonathan Firth's performance, as Sir Wilfrid Robart's eccentric personality leaps out from the stage, skillfully parrying Mr Myer's (Miles Richardson) presentation of evidence with witty defences one after the other. The use of a real cigarette by Romaine onstage was another surprise--the puff of smoke against the light, the whiffs of nicotine cemented her importance with a memorable entrance. Smooth transitions between scenes with skilful use of darkness and sound effects and the efficient coordination of stagehands as they move the props also stood testament to the effort put into the production.

Apropos to Christie Agatha's style, the first act ends with a spectacular turn of events, leaving us only with more questions. During intermission, we debated Joe McNamara's acting as Leonard Vole. He guileless astonishment at his newfound riches, his naïveté emanating out--was it too sincere? An over-exaggerated performance, or a foreshadowing of his true nature? Is Leonard Vole just that good of a man? This debate lasted until intermission ended, both of us on the edge of our seats to see how it would pan out.

After a two-year break, this performance was a sight for sore eyes. Sadly, as international students ourselves, we found ourselves disappointed with the portrayal of foreigners--the bold German refugee Romaine Vole, and the imperious housekeeper Janet MacKenzie (Yvonne Gidden). Their exaggerated accents made hearing the dialogue difficult, and unfortunately, we felt we missed several key details of the trial. It did not help that the play itself portrayed a negative stance towards foreigners in British court proceedings (ah, the jury wouldn't trust a foreigner!). Given its historical context, this perception could not be faulted, but it nevertheless left an unpleasant aftertaste in an otherwise splendid performance.

This production served as a triumphant welcome to West End's re-opening. Our first play after lockdown, we have dearly missed the magic of theatre. This time, we experienced the performance directly across the judge's bench; we look forward to another opportunity to witness the trial in another light.

The performance goes on until 20 March, 2022. For more information, click here.

*Student ticket offer: Those under 26 years of age may enjoy Band A stall seats for £25 in Tuesday--Thursday performances (previously £60). Offer is subject to availability, and proof of age will be required on collection. This promotion does not include all performances and may be restricted around peak days. Only available direct from venue box office. Valid until 20th December.

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