By Elyse Trevers
What does a New York theater critic do when in London? Take a busman’s holiday and go to the theater. London and New York have a kind of lend-lease theater program; many successful productions in New York wind up in London and vice versa.
So when I pick shows abroad, I look for something special, and I found that in “Witness for the Prosecution.”
“Witness for the Prosecution” is unique in that its setting is totally genuine. The show revolves around a murder and subsequent trial and takes place in London County Hall, an actual courthouse. The audience sits in the gallery that circles around the docket. (All leather-like seats, stiff and upright.)
To add a sense of reality, 12 members of the audience are selected to be the jury. They are given special instructions, even pads upon which to take notes. The attorneys and witnesses address them directly and the jury votes to determine the verdict at the conclusion of the trial.
The show begins with a screaming young man being dragged into the middle of the courtroom. A prologue shows a hangman’s noose ready to seal his fate. After the drop of the noose, the play actually starts. Is the hanging a foreshadowing or is the story a flashback?
The bulk of the story takes place in the courtroom. Leonard Vole has been accused of killing Miss Emily French, a wealthy spinster who he claims was like an aunt to him.
Yet she had recently named him as an heir to her fortune in her will so he has a motive. Does he have an alibi?
Vole’s defense is that he was at home with his wife Romaine, a stern German woman. His lawyer, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (well -played by Simon Dutton) takes on the case and is amused by his secretary’s announcement that Vole could not have committed the murder since he’s “such a dish.”
Vole’s lawyer and his solicitor are disturbed by Romaine’s calm demeanor and wonder if she will stand by her husband. More importantly, they wonder if the jury will believe her. Events take a startling turn when we learn that she never divorced her first husband and suddenly is called as a witness for the prosecution.
There’s some humor in the interplay of Vole’s lawyer and his nemesis Mr. Myers, the prosecutor. The two love to vie against each other, although Robarts suggests that Myers is more concerned about the victory than about justice. The judge often supports the defense, noting that a man’s life is at stake. Each time he puts the prosecutor down, it is humorous.
The cast is good, especially Dutton and Tim Francis, Vole’s solicitor and Caroline Stolz channeling Marlene Dietrich as Romaine. Sadly, the weakest link is Lewis Cope (“Billy Elliot”) as Vole. Although Cope is attractive, he is the least polished and believable performer, often over-emoting.
County Hall was opened in 1922 and was a working county building until 1986. By 1993 it was sold to a private company. Although a good creative designer could construct a realistic courtroom, nothing feels as authentic as the real thing. Added to the veracity of the play is the costuming and the court rituals. The judges and the lawyers wear robes and wigs. All rise for the judge who then bows to the lawyers and they to him. Suddenly the audience is immersed in the play.
The play is based on the popular Agatha Christie story written in 1933. In 1957 it was made into a popular movie starring Tyrone Power as Vole with Marlene Dietrich as his wife. Since I had never seen the movie, I checked online before attending the play. Instinctively, I only read a bit of the summary before stopping.
It was a good thing since much of the enjoyment of the play comes from trying to decide if Vole committed the murder. Or was it the housekeeper? Or Vole’s wife? Or a burglar? No spoilers here; you will have to see it for yourself.
If you are in London and want a different kind of theatrical entertainment, try “Witness for the Prosecution.” Most of us dread getting the summons requiring us to report for jury duty; this time you will want to be selected.