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Phil Willmott

Review: WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION at London County Hall

Witness for the Prosecution What a brilliant idea director Lucy Bailey and designer William Dudley have had. Simply and cleverly staged in the round this production of Agatha Christie’s vintage courtroom drama makes perfect use of the abandoned council chamber in County Hall.

It’s an impressively cavernous Victorian chamber as befits a debating hall where key matters for our capital city were hammered out, all leather, wood panelling and marble. Out of long-term use for over 20 years now it’s a perfect stand-in for the courts at the Old Bailey where many high-profile murder cases are settled.

This is exactly the kind of fictional trial that Agatha Christie cooks up in her beautifully constructed court room thriller.

It’s the nineteen twenties and the public are gripped by the case of Leonard Vole a handsome young man accused of extorting money from his murder victim, a lonely, rich, older woman.

The perfect ingredients are combined to make a persuasive cause celebre; the glamour of a good looking defendant and his exotic wife, the whiff of illicit extra-marital sex and the brutality of the crime - a blow to the back of the head. What’s more there are adversarial barristers as we like to imagine them; witty, acerbic, eccentric, hard as steel when needed, wise and compassionate beneath.

The central figure is barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts charismatically played by Jasper Britton with the slightest hint that his exuberance is slightly unhinged. We first meet him in his study as he encounters Leonard Vole and his alleged crimes. With the twinkle and panache of Sherlock Holmes unravelling a particularly knotty case he seizes the opportunity of clearing the boys name against all the odds as a thrilling challenge, risking his reputation on his ability to sway a jury.

I can reveal nothing more of the plot without spoiling it for you, but suffice to say there are plenty of engaging twists and turns on the journey to the truth.

An English court room drama from his period is a delightfully droll thing of ritual, elegance and suppressed emotion. The entire cast, skilfully assembled by casting director Ellie Collyer-Bristow, capture this perfectly so that you feel you might emerge from the chamber and into a more genteel London than our own. Although you do have to listen hard to the dialogue in the venues challenging acoustics which sometimes swallow the words when the actors have their backs to you. 

William Chubb passionately puts the case for the prosecution, Christopher Ravenscroft is everything you could wish for in a slightly befuddled yet steely judge, Daniel Solbe makes an impressive professional debut as Leonard Vole and Emma Rigby is terrific as his exasperatingly mysterious wife.

All in all, it’s a quintessentially British affair that will appeal to fans of period drama and murder mysteries. It also makes for a great London experience for tourists.

Witness for the Prosecution tickets