Everyone loves a whodunnit. The twists, the turns, the mysterious strangers who are never quite what they seem. And everybody loves Agatha Christie, an author famously only outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible. Our screens and bookshelves are stuffed with this plot-driven kind of stuff. But, Mousetrap aside (who goes to see The Mousetrap? Who?), crime- driven plots don’t feature heavily on stage.
After a few hours of Lucy Bailey’s new production of Witness for the Prosecution, a few thoughts occur as to why. Is it because they are essentially disposable? I think of days of yawning self-recrimination after staying up too late finishing a cheesy thriller. Blurry-eyed the next morning, it’s impossible to remember why it was so essential to find out who did the doing in. Somebody made it bloody up after all. I’ve been neither enriched by the experience, or stimulated to think in new ways, apart from the fresh perspective afforded by a fug of tired irritability. And what is drama – which needs so much more time, money and energy to engage with than TV show or cheap paperback – than a discussion of the things that make us human, what it means to be human? The gratification of the whodunnit is immediate only. Why would you schlep across London on a weeknight for something you can get for free on Netflix?
But I can’t help think that it’s no coincidence that posters for a film version of Aggy’s celeb-heavy but daft-looking Murder on the Orient Express are currently adorning buses. Is bringing back this simple, nostalgic world of right and wrong, of good guys and bad girls, a reductive yearning for simpler times, feeding our fragile islander egoism? Life’s complexities ironed out and tied with a bow. Aggy was the best, after all. And she was ours, even if it’s all a bit old-fashioned now.
Witness for the Prosecution begins with promise. Staged at London’s County Hall, the audience is invited to become member of the jury, sat in the leather, high-back chairs of what is, in fact (and more of that later…) a council debating chamber. Might there be gore a la Titus Andronicus? Audience baiting? No. There are lots of stompy exits and entrances with people carrying an excessively large amount of prop furniture. But it’s not the kind of radical update I was quietly hoping for.
Doubts start to creep in with the appearance of a bizarre hanging tableaux-thing (I really don’t know what to call it) before our court room-esque scene is transformed into a chintzy chambers. It’s all very stagey. Fun – but very stagey. Tension is cranked up to the max with very loud and very dramatic sound design, matched by dramatic uplighting on the scales of justice and the judge’s face, just in case you don’t get it. By the time the canned audience tittering and gasping that accompanies court room reveals begins it’s positively hammy.
Which all makes it sound hateful. It isn’t. It’s Agatha Christie: engaging, occasionally thrilling and always interesting. You could watch David Yelland’s Robart all day as he captures the ego-tripper disguised as justice-warrior prosecutor with precision. It’s a part he was born for. Jack McMullen’s nails the dippy, congenial ‘Dish’ Vole, too. So much so that I forgot that I’d seen the recent TV adaptation and knew who the murderer is. But with 2D, plot-dependent characters come hiccups and Vole’s not-quite-what-she-seems wife wanders into cliché.
With all the lighting and music, including lots of lovely but incongruous Philip Glass, it’s hard to see what the court room setting really adds. Indeed, Robart and Mr Mayhew are forced to sit with the plebs when not part of the proceeding, drawing more attention to the not-really-a-courtroomness. The play would probably do just as well under a proscenium arch, which would also have the advantage of saving the audience from all the bagging up and down steps carrying side tables. The booming acoustics are occasionally cool, but aside from the shocks delivered by Christie’s profound gift for plotting, Witness for the Prosecution is a pretty pedestrian affair.
Witness for the Prosecution is on until 11 March 2018 at the County Hall. Click here for more details.