Review: Witness For The Prosecution

Guilty of providing gripping drama

By John Jeffay, September 2, 2010

Grand Theatre, Leeds

Mark Wynter prosecutes in Agatha Christie’s courtroom classic

Mark Wynter prosecutes in Agatha Christie’s courtroom classic

This is everything you would expect from the queen of whodunnits - and more.

The 1957 film of Agatha Christie's tale Witness for the Prosecution carried this sombre message as the credits rolled: "The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending."

More than half a century later the twists at the end of this gripping courtroom drama still draw gasps from the audience.

Witness started life as a short story in 1925. Christie reworked it in just three weeks for the stage and director Billy Wilder then turned it into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton.

It is now on stage again as a touring production by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, as its seventh play in six years.

The curtain rises on the oak-panelled chambers of barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Denis Lill), and the set swiftly transforms into a bustling, Old Bailey courtroom, crowded with as many as 20 actors.

Standing in the dock is Leonard Vole (Ben Nealon), a drifter accused of murdering a wealthy and eccentric widow - described as elderly at the age of 56 - at her Hampstead home. Damningly, she changed her £85,000 will just days before she was found coshed to death.

Nealon captures the ambiguity of the role. He is the cheeky East End chappy who does not quite realise the gravity of his situation and appears to dig himself into a deeper and deeper hole. The circumstantial evidence against him is overwhelming. But could it just be that he is cleverer and more manipulating than the forces ranged against him?

The alibi offered by his wife Christine - Marlene Dietrich in the film version – could save him from the gallows. But she's an enigma - the ice-cold German who is grateful to Vole for rescuing her from Berlin. Does she really love him? And why does she qualify her alibi by saying it is what her husband told her to say?

This pivotal role was taken at this performance by Hannah Redfern, understudying for the unavailable Deborah Grant.

Denis Lill dominates as the bellowing defence barrister who accepts the case as an "intriguing challenge". He crafts the best arguments that he can for Vole, but everything changes when a mystery woman arrives at his chambers, offering to sell an explosive set of letters that could change the whole trial.

Christie has her critics but Witness is a classic of its kind. This compelling production, directed by Joe Harmston, does the story more than justice. There may be little depth to many of the characters, and the the courtroom setting rarely changes, but it moves quickly and it grips. Boy, does it grip, even after all these years.

Just don't tell anyone the end.

Until September 4. Tel: 0844 848 2706

Last updated: 12:57pm, September 14 2010