You can see why the idea appealed. The council chamber at County Hall, with its pillars and panelling, with its grand galleries, is on the surface a great fit for a courtroom drama. In reality, the sheer size of the room proves cumbersome and exposing.
Agatha Christie adapted Witness for the Prosecution from her own short story, originally titled Traitor Hands, adding a new twist for the stage. It led to her being the only female playwright ever to have had three plays running in the West End simultaneously, with Witness running alongside The Mousetrap and a later play, Spider’s Web.
The story was the source for Sarah Phelps’ recent atmospheric BBC adaptation; starring Toby Jones, it was shot in sickly yellow tones, and made much of the play’s murky central relationship. Lucy Bailey’s production is disappointingly pedestrian in comparison. The nature of the space means the courtroom scenes work best while events that occur outside those walls suffer.
Leonard Vole (Jack McMullen) is an affable if none too sharp young man – “a bit of a dish”, according to one character – who finds himself on trial for murdering a middle-aged lady he had recently befriended. Wealthy and lonely, she took a shine to Vole. We know she was lonely because she owned eight cats and had one of those over-protective lady’s companions who populate Christie’s work. Then days after she changed his will in her favour, someone caved her head in with a cosh.
While Leonard’s wife (Catherine Steadman) is able to provide him with an alibi, she is problematically foreign, so obviously a jury is unlikely to trust her, and she’s also all too obviously aware that she alone has the power to save him from the gallows.
All the performances need to be pitched at roughly the same level to make them audible, which leaves little room for nuance. Though Bailey has some fun with the rigmarole of the courtroom – the announcing of witnesses and the inclusion of a jury of audience members – this is neither an interactive nor an immersive production.
David Yelland and Philip Franks give suitably robust performances as Sir Wilfred Robarts QC and his opposite number, Mr Myers QC, but courtroom drama cliches abound. Christie may have helped create them but it doesn’t stop them feeling mechanical. Though usually such a nimble director, Bailey never finds a way of solving all the problems that the space presents.
The venue itself is a fascinating place to explore and there’s entertainment to be gleaned from the last few scenes in which Bailey and her cast embrace the schlock of the corkscrewing plot – Christie did love a twist. But ultimately the production resembles something you might catch on ITV3 in the early afternoon.