WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017
Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked. The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature. In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.
This production exudes excellence at every turn. A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.
Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case. Their accents give us both place and period. We’re in London in the 1950s.
Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred. He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work. Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).
When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur. Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters. After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades! Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.
Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout. It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around. He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.
The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something. The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work. The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court. But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.
Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement. The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!
Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake. Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.
A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain. On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.