Witness for the Prosecution (2018)

I hadn’t expected to go to see this play, but when the opportunity arose, it was a no brainer; I definitely had to go.

Theatre producer Peter Sanders seems to have persuaded or challenged Agatha Christie into writing this script, by submitting a version he wrote himself to her. Within a few months she had come back with her own offering, though Julius Green (author of Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in the Theatre), assures us that Christie’s version is not based on Saunders. She wrote and edited the play whilst at one of her husband’s digs and often sent new drafts via friends going back home. The process of writing this play is also notable for Christie’s turn to outside advice, in this case picking the brains of barrister Humphrey Tilling, for various legal aspects of the plot. Other members of the time also gained court room experience, such as Saunders who managed to see some of John Christie’s trial for serial murder. Obviously don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the play centres on the trial of a young man called Leonard Vole, who stands accused of murdering a rich older woman called Emily French. The circumstantial evidence is damning yet not conclusive, so the case really hangs on the testimony of Vole’s wife. But the question is, what will she say when she gets into the witness box?

Kate’s Amateur Photography No. 1

Overall Thoughts

I didn’t come to this play with a blank canvas, as in 2016 I read the original short story by Christie, before watching Sarah Phelps interpretation that Christmas. Having already watched one adaptation, I felt as though I had something to compare the play with and suffice to say I think the play did a far better job at bringing the story to life than the BBC effort. There are a few reasons for this assertion, the main one being that in this production of the play, I found the characters were wonderfully three-dimensional, complex and intricate, emotionally engaging and above all where needed, maintaining the original ambiguity. I found this especially so for the character of Romaine Vole, Leonard’s wife, as I think the BBC adaptation left her character both largely unexplored and equally filled with 2-dimensional stereotypes. In contrast Lucy Phelps brought such a richness to the role, making you alternately dislike her and in sympathy with her, and even at times comically entertained. Lucy certainly struck an untapped seam of dark humour in this character, which I have not seen before, but worked beautifully.

Furthermore, I think the play also took the right decision in not letting the audience have any interaction with the victim, Mrs French, except through the eyes of the undoubtedly biased witnesses. Again this maintains the ambiguity around her character: what sort of relationship did she really have with Leonard? The BBC unfortunately made the opposite choice and provided the TV viewer with more clichéd stereotypes, not really giving you much to think about or consider. Character and relational ambiguity is the lynchpin to the success of this story/play so any adaptation needs to preserve this, in my opinion.

The legal characters in this production also deserve a mention. The Judge, played by Julian Curry was surprisingly but effectively good as a source of subtle comic relief and the competitive verbal duels between the QCs were equally strong and brought the trial scenes to life.

Kate’s Amateur Photography No. 2

Above all I think this production was excellent at creating tension, the atmosphere really could have been cut with a knife, especially the closing scene. The music, lighting and minimal props were all used to good effect in this cause, without the aid of a miasma of green fog.

Whilst for obvious reasons I cannot detail the ending or its final twist, I can say I enjoyed it a lot, as I felt it gave the play a deeper emotional charge. This final twist is unique to the play and not found in the original story, though still devised by Christie. I didn’t see it coming, though I really should have done, but I

Kate’s Amateur Photography No. 2

think my prior knowledge of the story probably actually wrong footed me a bit. It can be said that the ending is quite fast, with the twists unfurling at a rapid rate of knots, but I feel that is the only way it could be done and is not the worse for it.

If you are able to get along to the County Hall in London before November I’d definitely recommend going to see this play and if you’re interested in reading the full cast list, it can be found here.

12 comments

  1. This looks excellent. Regrettably I probably won’t to get to see it in London and therefore the amazing staging, but who knows about regional tours? I have seen some Christie ‘done’ in some very mixed versions…
    Thanks for rebuilding my faith in this book/ play. I really struggled with the BBC adaptaion!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not heard about any tours, but fingers crossed it will happen. In regards to touring AC plays, next March I believe, The Mouse Trap is going to Sunderland, which might be a bit easier to get to. Glad my review has given WFTP another shot with you, as I agree that the BBC adaptation somewhat mangled and distorted it.

      Like

  2. Thanks for the review, which makes me want to watch a dramatisation of Agatha Christie’s works – but there aren’t many/ any. When I was overseas, I managed to catch a dramatisation of ‘Five Little Pigs’ – the play that Christie herself adapted out of Five Little Pigs (or was it the reverse?), without Poirot. I’ve not watched the televisation of Witness for the Prosecution – but the general opinion of the episodes didn’t seem especially receptive? 😨

    Incidentally, I’m reading the novel you’re about to review, and so I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Based on the book I have read and about to review next, (not the Yu!), the FLP play that Christie did was called Gone Back for Murder, which has no Poirot in it. It is a shame that the BBC adaptations in the last few years have become increasingly poor in quality. I didn’t wouldn’t recommend their version of WFTP or Ordeal by Innocence for that Matter. Crooked House, which was a TV version for us was much superior on Channel 5. Perhaps you need to pick Brad’s brains for US based theatre productions.

      Like

  3. That set is incredible! Great review, Kate. I echo the comments that the BBC’s adaptations not being that good. Their WFTP was particularly poor – dragging out a short story to three or four hours and have to make up all sorts of nonsense to fill the time! Their And Then There Were None was ok and Ordeal By Innocence better than WFTP, despite the changes but they’re all too dark. They seem to have forgotten that a lot of Christie’s books had some wry humour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes the set really adds a lot to the performance in terms of atmosphere and aesthetics. I agree that adaptations of late have been keen to emphasise the “darkness” of Christie, as they think her works will sell/come across better that way. Whilst this does help to reduce the stereotype of Christie being a cosy writer, the humour, like you say, does sometimes dissipate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My husband suggested the dark tone could be an attempt to tap into the relatively recent boom in Nordic noir and he might be right. As you say, perhaps a deliberate move away from the ‘cosy’ / ‘cosier’ Marples and Poirots.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. If you like the dark humour in Romaine, I really recommend Marlene Dietrich’s turn in the Billy Wilder movie. This movie is also worth a watch because of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.