On Halloween, Agatha Christie’s play Witness for the Prosecution opened at the Byre Theatre. Hits like ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Thriller’ played as a fairly costumed audience walked in, an audience which came to have a rather prominent role in the play itself, set for the most part in a coldly-lit courtroom. Letters were read aloud “for the benefit of the jury” and the direction of the play actively reminded the audience of their role as jurors.
The plot was seemingly straightforward; the accused Leonard Vole is forced to prove his innocence in the murder of the wealthy and elderly Emily French, with his ‘devoted’ wife, Romaine as witness for the prosecution and not for the defence of her husband.
Characteristic of Christie, the play brimmed with suspense and an archetypal plot twist or two, guiding the audience towards a seemingly clever conclusion, seducing us into what we thought would happen next. What occurred was quite the opposite. This tension was carried fairly well by the actors, but at times there was a scratchy, last-minute feel to the show as actors unfortunately stumbled over lines here and there.
Directed by Eleanor Whorms and produced by Tess McCartney and Rowan Kehrer, it is a difficult and ambitious feat to take on an Agatha Christie play — her writing demands convincing and cohesive performances. Though acting and line-delivery occasionally felt clumsy in certain places, individual performances made the play truly memorable.
Lead Callum Wardman-Browne’s Leonard Volegave the show its dramatic core and his intertwining of vulnerability and outbursts of desperation had audience (or jury?) members on the edge of their seats. The lead roles were exceedingly well cast, with the accused’s senior counsel Sir Wilfred Robarts played by Mackenzie Galbraith, having a distinctive, Churchill-esque performance that raised the energy in the auditorium with excellent comedic timing and physicality. Lexie Dykes’ Romaine entranced the audience with her twist on the role of a devoted wife, hosting an ability to convey a variety of emotion.
As the narrative progressed, I felt like a fully fledged juror, having developed attachments and sympathies for the accused Leonard, whose performance gave rise to moments of palpable stress and unease. This was further bolstered by an unfaltering performance by Max Fryer as Mr Myers, the prosecutor. When scenes taking place in the courtroom setting began to feel admittedly static, the amusing and memorable secondary characters brought freshness and life to the stage as witnesses.
Perhaps the drama and tension of the play was not felt as much as the comedy found in its occasional quips by the audience. Yet, in Witness for the Prosecution’s interesting mixture of stellar performances, a remarkable script and the vigorous energy of a cast playing it by ear, the narrative became something of its own. Though perhaps not as dramatic as it was written to be by Christie, the play promised striking performances and funny one-liners. A uniquely gripping, humorous, and above all, a memorable show.
Photos by Tess McCartney