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Review: WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, London County Hall

With her most famous play, The Mousetrap, celebrating its 65th anniversary in London's West End, it only seems right for another of Agatha Christie's stage works to be brought back for a limited run. Based on the short story Traitor Hands, Christie adapted it into a play in the early 1950s - and it was recently seen on the small screen, as the BBC aired a television version over the last festive season.

Leonard Vole has been accused of the murder of an unsuspecting older woman, Emily French. Following a chance meeting, he claims to have cultivated a friendship out of nostalgia for the aunt who brought him up.

However, when it's revealed Miss French changed her will to make him the sole beneficiary, his motives start to seem a lot less innocent than he would suggest. Whether or not he receives the capital punishment depends entirely on the Prosecution's final, unexpected, witness...

Aside from the Bible and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie's works are the most widely sold in all literature, and there have also been extensive film and television adaptations, so there can't be many people out there who are completely unfamiliar with her work; one might suggest this overexposure could turn an audience off. However, with the opportunity to see a courtroom drama played out in the Chamber at London County Hall, it adds a completely new dimension to proceedings.

With the judge occupying the bench, the performance area is thrust rather than in the round, though with the actors using multiple entrances (and the use of sound effects in court scenes) the audience does become entirely immersed in the action - even to the extent of someone being elected foreman of the jury! Lucy Bailey's direction is focused and gives an air of authenticity, while Chris Davey's lighting design intensifies the drama and tension.

Initially, William Dudley's set appears to be quite minimal, with a solitary stool the main focus, though as we move from scene to scene it does have a little more going on. That is one of the production's only downsides. The scene transitions can be quite lengthy as various items of furniture are moved on and off; whilst it couldn't be done any quicker, it does impede the flow ever so slightly.

Of the fairly large cast, a few stand out. Patrick Godfrey is, largely, incredibly funny as the judge Mr Justice Wainwright - although in moments of extreme seriousness he becomes a far more intimidating figure indeed. David Yelland brings a self-confident gusto to the vital role of Sir Wilfred Robarts QC, the star lawyer who takes on Vole's defence case.

Catherine Steadman excels as the defendant's German actress wife Romaine, displaying a Teutonic efficiency combined with perfect comic timing. Jack McMullen also impresses as the accused, embodying Leonard Vole's naïve persona - as well as showing a completely different side to him later on.

If you like a good murder mystery, then this is just the thing for you: vintage Agatha Christie played out in the perfect setting. A fantastic cast and creative team combine to make a truly thrilling piece of theatre that's an experience as much as a show - a theatrical jury service you'll never forget.

Witness for the Prosecution is at London County Hall until 11 March, 2018

Picture credit: Sheila Burnett



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