Thursday, 26 October 2017

Review Witness For The Prosecution

Francis Beckett relishes the legal shenanigans of a classic courtroom drama in a venue haunted by the ghosts of London's political past. 

Witness for the Prosecution
By Agatha Christie

A Hanging Offence

One of crime writer Agatha Christie's most famous plays is being performed in the splendid debating chamber where, from 1922 to 1986, the London County Council and then the Greater London Council met and took decisions for the capital.

It’s an atmospheric venue of the right period for both the 1925 short story and the 1953 popular stage version Witness For The Prosecution.

A young man is charged with the murder of a wealthy spinster and subsequent events display all the Christie bag of tricks: suspense, betrayal, a plot with as many twists and turns as a fairground ride.

The stakes are high, for in 1953 we still hanged people for murder. Agatha Christie, as playwright, does a thoroughly professional job and, without doing anything at all profound, Witness For The Prosecution certainly holds the attention.

The present production has assured and imaginative direction from Lucy Bailey and set designer William Dudley makes sensitive use of what the venue gives him.

A first class cast is headed by David Yelland as Sir Wilfred Robarts QC, counsel for the defence. 

Yelland has this old-style QC just right: vain, stately and instinctively, but not unkindly, snobbish. He calls the accused man by his unadorned surname, expecting the working class man to call him Sir Wilfred. But he's also a lawyer who cares about people and about justice.

Patrick Godfrey makes a wonderful, crackling, elderly judge and Philip Franks a sinister, sneering prosecution barrister. Jack McMullen manages brilliantly to make the twists and turns of the accused man almost believable and Catherine Steadman is superb as his wife.

The cross-examinations may sometimes seem rather ham-fisted with Sir Wilfred a bit slow to see what is before his eyes. But, without them, the author couldn’t have given us the next twist in the plot. The end justifies the means.

Walking into the chamber, you pass walls which have, engraved in them, fading lists of great politicians who once ruled London: famous names of the recent past  - Herbert Morrison, Christopher Chataway, Ashley Bramall, Ken Livingstone. They are a reminder of a time when the building belonged to Londoners.

Once inside, you also get to watch that fine character actor Richard Attlee, who doubles as clerk to Sir Wilfred and a police surgeon and is probably best known as Kenton Archer in The Archers.

By an excruciating irony, he is also the grandson of Clement Attlee, Britain’s post Second World War Labour Prime Minister. Attlee had a healthy respect for local democracy and the denizens of the building that glowers across the Thames at the House of Commons.

He would have been horrified to see the fate that has befallen the building. For in 1986, Margaret Thatcher evicted London's elected representatives and sold the splendid building to a private company. It now houses restaurants, fast food outlets, hotels, that sort of thing.

When Londoners got their government back, it was exiled to a small novelty building, sloping like a plastic replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So, one really good reason for going to see Witness for the Prosecution is that it’s one of the few chances you’ll get to see how much more dignified London government once was.

You also get to follow Agatha Christie's well-constructed play, still an audience pleaser, with the capacity to spring surprises.

If you’ve seen an earlier stage or screen version, you'll  know what’s coming, but go anyway – this production is as good as it gets.  A green light for a walk through history and a good evening in the theatre.

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