“You want to know too much…”
It’s 1954 and a handsome young man stands in the dock, accused of the murder of a rich elderly woman whom he befriended. His wife’s testimony could save him but not all is what it seems as she becomes a Witness for the Prosecution. Playing in Richmond for a week as part of a tour which goes to Malvern, Southend and Cambridge next, Agatha Christie’s play looks at the nature of truth in the English legal system and how people are not always what they seem, even to those closest to them, and puts us the audience in the role of the jury, trying to make sense of the conflicting stories and information presented to us in order to prevent either a guilty man escaping justice or an innocent man from the gallows.
Considering that this is a touring show and Richmond Theatre’s auditorium is hardly the most flexible of spaces at first glance, the set is quite frankly amazing. The opening scene, set in chambers, is a gloomy, darkly atmospheric affair with dark panelled wood all around and a bare hint of a glow from a fireplace. But then as we move to the court case, the lights go up and a very impressively mounted, multi-level courtroom is fully revealed and it looks extremely convincing. It has been superbly designed by Simon Scullion and it’s a good job, given that we only leave the courtroom briefly once more in the entire play.
I did find the opening sequence a little flat, somewhat underpowered in the half-light of Sir Wilfred’s offices with a vast amount of information to get through in order to set the scene and necessarily static but fortunately this did not last for too long with the advent of the trial. And what a trial it is: driven by two barnstorming performances from Mark Wynter and Denis Lill as the opposing QCs, teasing the stories and crucial details from an array of supporting characters including the not-quite-as-batty-as-she-seems housekeeper played by Jennifer Wilson. Lill is particularly strong in his pursuit of proving Leonard’s innocence, ably assisted by Robert Duncan’s Mr Mayhew. The courtroom is then topped off with Peter Byrne’s judge who frequently diffuses the tension with some very amusing non sequiturs since he’s completely out-of-touch with the times, but Christie cleverly plays with our expectations and provides him with a razor-sharp legal mind should we begin to underestimate him.
Ben Nealon as the accused Leonard and Honeysuckle Weeks as his mysterious wife Romaine are also both engaging, which is crucial in keeping us engrossed in the twists and turns of the trial, but also in the subtle playing of the hidden depths to both characters. Is all as it really seems? With these two, we’re kept guessing right until the very end, and it is an ending utterly worth the wait, Christie showing consummate skill in deploying some humdingers of game-changing significance but which maintain the integrity of the drama, they may be unexpected but they fit perfectly.
The only small niggle that I had was the presence of the jury onstage. Christie intended the audience to be the jury, we’re the ones making a judgement, and we are constantly addressed by all parties as such so it felt a little incongruous to then have a jury sitting upstage who were basically ignored throughout the show. On the other hand, the use of so many extras gave a real sense of bustle and authenticity to the courtroom scenes that was very pleasing to see.
Well-staged, well acted, well written, I really enjoyed all aspects of this production and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company look like they have another hit on their hands: this is one gripping courtroom drama that you will definitely want to bear witness to.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (although advertised as 2 hours 45 minutes)
Programme cost: £3