Agatha Christie's novel is dramatized in the magnificent setting of a 1920s Edwardian Baroque council chamber with exciting director Lucy Bailey in charge. . . .
“I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.”
London’s County Hall was closed for local government business in 1986 after a battle between the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the Labour Party controlled Inner London Education Authority and the Greater London Council. The powers were devolved to the individual London boroughs but within a few years a City Hall for London wide mayoralty was erected on the Thames Embankment near Tower Bridge. Vacating the purpose built 1920s offices led to two hotels and an aquarium occupying the huge site at the southern end of Westminster Bridge. The Council Chamber where the elected representatives met and discussed the business of the day did not readily lend itself immediately to another use but read on.
The magnificent council chamber with its leather seats and wooden scrolled armrests, leather fold out writing desks and space for inkwells, has a crest decorated throne for the leader of the council and so resembles a main court at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, that it is perfectly suited to an immersive theatre experience recreating the 1950s trial of Leonard Vole (Daniel Solbe) accused of murder.
Vole, a handsome young man with a chequered employment history is accused of murdering a rich spinster, Miss French of Hampstead and the only alibi he has is from his German wife, Romane Vole (Emma Rigby). Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (Jasper Britton) will be the defence barrister for Leonard Vole. When it emerges that Miss French has recently changed her will and her sole heir is Leonard Vole, a motive is established.
Lucy Bailey’s enjoyable production is full of thrills. Not least Jasper Britton’s exciting and eccentric barrister whom we first meet in his chambers where Vole’s solicitor Mr Mayhew (Richard Banks) will introduce Vole’s case. I have always admired the range of Jasper Britton as a witty and clever actor and he is in his element as the theatrical lawyer and his facial expressions are a joy. The arrival of heavily German accented and leather clad Mrs Vole shows Vole’s wife to be vampish and considerably more sophisticated than her husband.
The play starts with the prisoner brought in and with dramatic lighting, the judge Mr Justice Wainwright (Christopher Ravenscroft) will put on a black cap over his wig, an action reserved for his giving the judgment of a death sentence, in this case, death by hanging. But this action is not necessarily the conclusion to Leonard Vole’s case, rather a potential outcome. We cut back to Sir Wilfrid’s chambers to follow the trial.
There is much in the programme “From Page to Stage” about how this original short story by Agatha Christie became a drama for the stage. Peter Saunders, her theatrical producer suggested adapting her 1925 short story Traitor Hands as a courtroom based drama. Christie resisted and told Saunders if he wanted an adaptation, to write it himself. He did but she rewrote it as Witness for the Prosecution. Saunders’ adaptation is lost.
Critical ethos forbids me from revealing any more of the plot but I can assure you that the performances are thoroughly convincing in this atmosphere laden play. The noise of the echoing steps in the stone floored corridors, as a witness is called, is part of the drama. Daniel Solbe as Vole is very self effacing in front of the court, nervous and with his head permanently bowed. Seeing Witness for the Prosecution it is easy to see why Agatha Christie’s dramas have such a dedicated following but don’t miss the architecture of this particular setting.
Witness for the Prosecution
Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Liam Lau Fernandez
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: William Dudley
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Sound Designer: Mic Pool
Video: Tal Yarden
Fight Director: Ruth Cooper-Brown
Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Booking now 14th September 2021 to 20th March 2022
London SE1 7PB
Phone: 0844 815 7141
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at County Hall
on 12th January 2019