Review: Verdict, Churchill Bromley

“People matter as much as ideas”

Her off Strictly Come Dancing, him out of Drop the Dead Donkey, her out of Monarch of the Glen, him off Doctors and yes him out of Harry Potter all grown up now: Bill Kenwright’s The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production of her 1958 play Verdict is jam-packed with recognisable faces, a canny move for a touring show. But the company’s exploration of the full breadth of her playwriting (last year saw Witness for the Prosecution but the previous one saw A Daughter’s A Daughter, a romance written under her Mary Westmacott pseudonym) means that this is not necessarily the most recognisably ‘Agatha Christie’ of her works. A completely original play, Verdict eschews the mystery thriller format and is more of a melodrama. Yes there’s a murder but it is carried out onstage in front of us and Christie is much more interested in exploring the consequences of following the head and not the heart and the impact that purely intellectual reasoning can have on people.

It is set entirely in the Bloomsbury flat of German émigré Professor Karl Hendryk where he lives with wife Anya, suffering from a progressively debilitating disease, and cousin Lisa who helps to care for her. Anya is bitter about having to flee her contented life in Germany due to Karl’s act of kindness to a persecuted friend and depressed about the state of her own health, so questions of suicide are raised when she dies. But his liberal attitudes to those who do him wrong push his friends to the very limit as it turns out all is not what it seems with his wife’s death and adhering so strictly to his moral code threatens those who are closest to him.

Robert Duncan’s professor was strong with a nice fatherly compassion, though I wasn’t entirely sure I saw what made practically every woman in the play fall for this character. But the relationships with the women in his life were well done and the connections with Dawn Steele’s excellent Lisa, a tower of patient strength, Ali Bastian’s slatternly spoilt student and Cassie Raine’s angsty wife were testament to some strong acting performances. Around them, there’s a flurry of variable supporting performances: I enjoyed Mark Wynter’s kindly Doctor Stoner but Matthew Lewis’ helpful student was too underpowered to make much impact and conversely, Elizabeth Power’s vicious gossip of a housekeeper was too broadly comedic, though most of the audience would probably disagree with me.

However, the strength of the acting cannot really overcome the dated feel to much of the material and the sense of old-fashioned melodrama that permeates. It all feels rather predictable and though director Joe Harmston jolts occasional life into the production by working in a couple of neat tricks with some key revelations, it just serves to remind how good her mystery thrillers are by comparison. Christie’s insights into the relationships between men and women don’t offer much to our contemporary world though the debate on morality and ethics was more effective.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 2nd April, then touring to Derby and Richmond

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Witness for the Prosecution, Richmond Theatre

“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
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews