When we interviewed Theatre Mill about their production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, actor Adam Elms described their venture into York’s Guildhall Council Chambers as a “gamble.” As it turned out, this company have certainly turned up trumps. Thursday night the cast held the audience, or rather jury, captivated for over two and a half hours as we desperately tried to ascertain the truth. Naturally, it evaded us until the very end but this did not prevent my neighbours from whispering their conjectures throughout. For once, no one hushed. So immersed were we in our role that these disruptions felt, not only welcome, but necessary. A man’s life was in our hands; we had a verdict to make.
As usual with Christie, the writing had us hooked but it is Samuel Wood’s innovative direction that really forces the audience to think
Celebrating the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, Theatre Mill reinvigorates their production from last year with some new cast members and a chance for spectators to lend a more “analytical eye” (Samuel Wood, Director) to the case presented. Ushered into our seats by stern and robed members of court, and denied an audience’s prerogative to anonymous darkness, this courtroom was no mere backdrop. We were directed by the authoritative Clerk of the Court (Paul Toy) to rise when instructed and consistently encouraged, even implored, to respond discerningly to the case presented. In such an immersive setting it would have been as difficult to tune out of this performance as it is to put down a Poirot. As usual with Christie, the writing had us hooked but it is Samuel Wood’s innovative direction that really forces the audience to think. With ominous black outs, strangely upbeat music and a stellar cast all occupying the Council Chambers, Wood has procured a home for Christie’s mystery that could not be better suited.
Leonard Vole (Niall Costigan) is a poor and naively endearing young man with a story that is, unfortunately, rather damning. A dynamic duo, consisting of the barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts Q.C. (Gordon Kane) and solicitor Mr Mayhew (Adam Elms), attempts to defend this gentleman. Their interaction was sharp and rapid but exchanged glances revealed a mutual trust in the defendant. Kane’s performance in court was remarkable. He relished every advantage for the defence and confidently allowed advantageous clues to drop into lingering silences. There was no need to elaborate when his intense gazed towards the jury bench exposed, with ease, the significance of these revelations. The man he defends, Leonard Vole, is a character altered considerably by what takes place in court. From bumbling, loving husband to terrified, whimpering wreck and more, Costigan carried each development with confidence.
There is a knot within this tale that will arise and unravel its successive twists so rapidly you will be left reeling
Rachel Logan’s performance as Leonard’s captivating and devious wife was another highlight. Strolling confidently into the room, she immediately undermined Sir Wilfred’s sexist (it’s the 50s) preconceptions of a wife “hysterical” and incapable of keeping control of herself. On the contrary, she soon appeared to have control of the entire court. Other powerful figures included the opposing barrister Mr Myers Q.C (Clive Moore) whose manipulation of the wonderfully unique setting was superb. Mimicking his “learned friend” Sir Wilfred’s movements towards the accused he transformed such proximity from consolation to aggressive suspicion. Such bold, loud scenes found balance outside of the courtroom with welcome tea breaks and arrival of news provided by Greta (Lowenna Melrose). Her warm, bubbly presence lent softness to a play led by incisive dialogue but, as expected with Christie, superficial solutions don’t last long.
This is a plot that initially develops in a considerably linear manner, yet, don’t be fooled into complacency! There is a knot within this tale that will arise and unravel its successive twists so rapidly you will be left reeling. So don’t deny your call to jury duty; perhaps you might succeed where I failed to solve this fantastic mystery. Agatha Christie commented on the 1953 opening night thus: “Yes I am proud of it still.” No doubt, if she had sat amongst us on Thursday night, her remark would not have changed one iota.