It all takes place less than 50 years ago. Much has changed since then. Much has remained the same. Which may be why Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution is still such a gripping story. Its action shifts between a QC’s chambers and the Old Bailey as the trial in connexion with the murder of a wealthy old lady reveals past tragedies as well as present prejudices.
There’s a fine double set by Simon Scullion, all dark wood and dusty light. Courtroom dramas place the audience in the jury’s place, only we in the theatre have the advantage of peeping behind the court into the lawyers’ offices to discover things which do not always come out in the witness box. Instinctive reactions – first impressions – are not always the best. Amateurs do misjudge but, of course, so can the professionals.
You may well know the story, from the 1957 film version if not from a live production. Leonard Vole is reliant on his wife for an alibi when charged with murder. She has every thing to lose if she denies this to him, labouring as she does under the double disadvantage of being German (remember this is 1953) and older than he is. His barrister knows that there is much evidence against his client, but surely this is all merely circumstantial?
Director Joe Harmston has assembled a strong cast. The contrasted lawyers are all excellent – Denis Lill as the no-nonsense Sir Wilfrid, Robert Duncan as the instructing solicitor Mr Mayhew, Mark Wynter as the fidgety prosecuting counsel and Peter Byrne as the judge with a nice line in bon mots. There’s a neat sketch of the slightly slimy chief inspector by Gary Richards and of the seen-it-all-before chambers and court clerks by Michael Gabe.
A large cast show, but one with a high proportion of men. Jennifer Wilson has great fun with the pernickety Scottish housekeeper Janet McKenzie, over-egging her pudding of testimony to considerable effect. But the core of the play is Vole’s wife Romaine. From her first entrance Lisa Kay, as precise in economical movement as in careful enunciation of an alien language, is the still, hard centre around which the tension builds. It’s a very fine performance which uses the audience’s initial hostility to turn the emotional screw to its breaking point for the play’s climax.
As I said, you may know the plot. I don’t propose to spoil it for you if you come fresh to the story. Either way it goes to prove that controlled passion can be just as dramatic as unrestrained savagery. And just as much a hanging matter.