Witness For The Prosecution

Written by Robert Gore Langton

The Mousetrap has been running so long – since 1952 – it’s easy to forget Agatha Christie wrote other plays as well. This one is perhaps best remembered as the 1957 film, with Charles Laughton playing the tetchy, monocle-wearing monster of a barrister, superbly over-acting for the defence. The real star of this production is the novelty venue. It’s staged in County Hall, over the river from the Houses of Parliament, in
the building that housed the Greater London Council before Maggie Thatcher abolished it.

You sit in leather bench seats polished by the bottoms of generations of councillors in a marble-pillared, polygonal chamber of great splendour and pomp. It’s the perfect substitute for the Old Bailey, the scene of this 1951 courtroom drama. The prisoner in the dock, Leonard Vole, is accused of bumping off an old lady (a heavy object to the skull) he has befriended. The naive, working- class Vole (expertly played by Jack McMullen) faces the noose. After all, he has her blood on his left cuff and he’s a beneficiary of her will. Worse, he also has a ‘continental’ wife (Catherine Steadman, wearing a beret – a nod to Marlene Dietrich in the film), and English juries, we learn, don’t tend to believe foreigners.

Happily, his defence is led by Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC, a seasoned maestro at getting people off. The action veers between legal chambers, the High Court, and an East End pub where Sir Wilfrid hooks up with a lady of the night who has some incriminating letters for sale.

Lucy Bailey directs this hoary hokum with the sound of sawing violins, courtroom gasps, echoing court calls for witnesses, and some scary lighting. It gives fresh theatricality to the more conventional ‘I put it to you’ grandstanding of the barristers and the procedural flummery of the court. Ticking off the witnesses is a scarlet-robed judge (a gin-dry Patrick Godfrey). The owlish prosecuting counsel, played by Philip Franks, is excellent. The only slight disappointment is David Yelland as Sir Wilfrid, who could do with more ham and relish when on the attack.

Being by Agatha Christie, the play depends on a totally daft twist you don’t see coming. But it’s never guilty of being boring. Verdict? A proper old-fashioned courtroom hit.

Until 11 March 2018 at County Hall, London SE1: 0844-815 7141, www.witnesscountyhall.com