Growing up, I sped through nearly all of Agatha Christie’s 60+ novels – but always preferred the non-Poirot and non-Marple ones. They seemed fresher, somehow.
Two were my favourites: underrated Endless Night (better than 1920s classic Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which inspired it) and the masterpiece And Then There Were None.
Watching this new production by Lucy Bailey of Witness For The Prosecution adds a third to the list. It’s not quite as dark and cerebral as last year’s untouchable BBC adaptation, but nonetheless its power to shock is underlined by the untampered original ending.
Its ‘immersive’ setting – vast pillars, comfy padded seats and individual bureaus – is perfectly judged, in the atmospheric confines of the Chamber, a courtroom inside London County Hall on the South Bank. Here, the audience is placed within the action – you can even pay extra to be part of the jury, if you must.
The story centres on lovable layabout Leonard Vole (an exactly cast Jack McMullen), accused of murdering a widow to inherit her wealth. He must then convince the jury of his innocence and escape the death penalty – although apparently not if his ‘foreign’ wife has anything to do with it.It starts thrillingly – and the subsequent two scenes are so well set up that you’re rooting for Vole throughout the twists and turns.
To avoid spoilers, it’s not worth saying any more than that. But the performances are great fun: Catherine Steadman, as Vole’s wife Romaine, has a ball, as does Patrick GodFrey (lit terrifyingly at one point) playing the judge, and David Yelland and Philip Franks as lawyers for the defense and prosecution respectively.
It’s easy to forget how much humour there is in Christie, and the play easily alternates between tragic and comic, grandeur and bathos. And the #awks jokes on Romain Vole’s ‘foreignness’ take on something of an additional potency in these troubling Brexit times.
A word of warning: don’t lose a second’s concentration in the last scene as the ingenious denouement is short, sharp and stark. A little too so, in fact. It certainly ensures you unpick the plot on the bus home.