Theatre Review: Witness For The Prosecution – Courting New Interest, Or Evidence Of Talent

June 5, 2024




Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


This production was originally set to be staged in 2020, with the Covid pandemic shutting down what was shaping up to be an exciting and much-anticipated reunion of director Alan Swerdlow and Agatha Christie after the former helmed the South African production of The Mousetrap when the play celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

So it is deeply comforting to see not only this particular piece staged at last, but also what is a marker of the continued return of dramas with considerable casts after a period in which the need to redevelop audiences from their post-lockdown low points meant producers and theatres were often not in a position to finance and host larger productions.

This is still a markedly scaled-down version of the original British show, which somehow managed to find space for more than 30 actors onstage. Swerdlow has judiciously trimmed that, requiring a couple of actors to briefly portray more than one character, and done so in such a way that it is genuinely difficult to imagine how a much longer cast list would augment matters in any way.

As the title suggests, Witness For The Prosecution is a courtroom drama, allowing for a different approach to Christie’s trademark whodunnit narratives. Here, it’s still almost impossible to predict who might be responsible for the murder mentioned in the play’s early moments, but instead of madcap, multi-scene interactions between characters and different locations, almost all of the action here takes place in a courtroom in London’s Old Bailey, with the complexities of the storyline being unpacked through the barristers’ depositions and the responses of those called to the witness box.

Sarah Roberts’ costumes and set add rich detail to the story, with the panoply of coats worn by the cast in themselves an entertaining feature. There is also a sheet over one corner of the backdrop, along with a sign saying “Under construction”. This is because the play takes place in 1950, and the Second World War bombing damage to the Old Bailey was only completed by the following year. It’s a detail that doesn’t impact directly on the story, but which lends to the mixture of authenticity and knowing noir that characterises this production.

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner plays the title character, the wife of the accused, Leonard Vole (Brett Kruger, in his professional theatre debut) and gets the bulk of the juiciest moments, with her exotic foreigner Romaine (who is German, which does nothing to lend her credence, so close to the war) both exciting and confounding the staid Englishmen charged with determining Vole’s guilt. Graham Hopkins enjoys the bulk of the stage time (with his customary gravitas and dry humour) as Sir Wilfred Robarts, the senior barrister representing the Crown, first doing the groundwork for the case alongside John Mayhew (Craig Jackson), the solicitor first approached by Vole to help with his case, and then presenting the lengthy and detailed case in court. Jackson is arguably under-used – his accent, phrasing and comic timing make Mayhew a standout character when he’s in the spotlight.

Dianne Simpson and Matthew Lotter both play a couple of smaller roles with consistent intensity, adding a great deal of humour and dramatic colour (and in Simpson’s case, some delightfully broad accents). And Mike Huff and Peter Terry add the sense of establishment heft to their characters – the opposing barrister and the judge overseeing the case, respectively – that makes so many of Christie’s plays culturally relevant far beyond the time in which they are first presented. The former, seated high above the stage, also delivers some lovely one-liners with fittingly dour delight.

The gasps at the revelation of the twist confirmed that both Christie’s story and this particular telling of it continue to perplex audiences who thought they had a handle on the outcome of a plot. And the enthusiastic exchange of opinions at interval suggested that everyone enjoyed the journey.