Keeps you guessing to the end

Witness for the Prosecution

Wolverhampton Grand

***

REMEMBER those black and white crime thrillers with clipped accents that used to pop up on the Midnight Movie be shown on Sunday afternoon television to give people something to watch without too much effort after Sunday lunch?

This is the theatrical equivalent. Agatha Christie's play first saw the light of day as a short story in 1925 but after the success of The Mousetrap it was reworked for the stage opening in 1953 and almost 60 years on, in truth, it is starting to show its age.

With the fine cast assembled for this production you feel it should be better than it actually is. Not that that is their fault or that there is anything wrong with it but has become . . .  a little dated.

Without giving too much away Leonard Vole played convincingly by Ben Nealon (Soldier Soldier) a likeable, working-class sort of chap has found himself on the wrong side of coincidence for the murder of an old dear he had befriended.

She was 56 – which might have been old in 1953 but caused plenty of amusement among an audience many of whom had just been moved into the positively ancient category by that Vole chap on stage.

His only alibi was his German, actress wife Romaine played by Honeysuckle Weeks (Sam  Stewart in Foyle's War) who, once she had sorted her accent out, managed to have the audience guessing her motives and her affections as the play  developed.

Muddying the waters still further we also had the Scottish housekeeper Janet McKenzie (Jennifer Wilson) who obviously did not like Vole and said so in no uncertain manner – and an equally uncertain accent.

Defending young Vole was Sir Wilfred Robarts and Denis Lill (Dennis in Outside Edge) made him look and sound the part of a 1950's QC while his solicitor was Mr Mayhew, Robert Duncan (Gus in Drop the Dead Donkey), pictured above, who incidentally was also excellent in the touring version of Outside Edge, who brought a little levity to proceedings.

Presecuting, in splendidly bumtious syle is Mr Myers QC played by Mark Wynter, pictured below, while overseeing the whole thing was Mr Justice Wainwright played with that wit and lack of worldly knowledge that we so love in our judiciary by Peter Byrne who you might remember as Andy Crawford in Dixon of Dock Green . . .  glory be, am I that old.

The action all took part in Sir Wilfred's chambers and the courtroom with a remarkably clever set which could be switched in a matter of moments before your very eyes. The lighting was also impressive with huge shadows on the wall from the open fire in the chambers and clever lightening and gradual darkening to emphasis points or add effect. Both set and lighting designers, Simon Scullion and Douglas Kuhrt deserve bows for that.

In court we became the jury watching the trial unfold before us but even considering our important role in proceedings the first half at just under 90 minutes was a tad long – 56-year-old (and beyond) rears need armchairs, or at least cushions, rather than theatre seats beyond the hour mark and there was plenty of shuffling going on by the time the ice creams appeared which perhaps lost a little of the closing drama.

If the first act set the scene then the second much shorter provided all the twists and turns with the final revelation catching many by surprise.

It was all  a bit Victorian melodrama at the end but was still a very watchable production but as I said, age has caught up. The murder of 56 year-old-woman would hardly be front page news day after day these days and perhaps the play also suffers because we as an audience are more sophisticated. With things like CSI, Law & Order, Silent Witness and the like on TV we are not even remotely impressed by blood on a piece of evidence that  links it to almost 50 per cent of the population.

The play has become rather a period piece and you almost expect it to be in black and white but within its limitations it is well done and the twists keep you guessing right to the end as any good thriller should. To 6-03-2010.

Roger Clarke 

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