Witness for the Prosecution

Date 18th May 2023
Society Neston Players
Venue Civic Hall Neston
Type of Production Drama
Director Cheryl Barker & Sarah McGinty
Sound Andrew Rymer
Lighting Mike Palmer
Producer Sarah McGinty & Cheryl Barker
Written By Agatha Christie

Report

Author: Justine Sutcliffe

Play: Witness for the Prosecution

Written by: Agatha Christie

Performed by: Neston Players

Venue: Neston Civic Hall

Directors: Sarah McGinty & Cheryl Barker

Date: Thursday 18th May 2023

Reviewed by: Justine Sutcliffe

 

Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution needs little introduction.  We are all familiar with the queen of Crime’s murder mystery catalogue and this is one of the jewels.  Set mainly in the chamber of Robarts QC and the court room of the Old Bailey, the play follows Leonard Vole as he walks the tightrope of justice.  Set in the 1950’s it provides ample opportunity for a larger cast and has succulent roles for both men and women.  Vole’s wife, Romaine, is a delight of contradiction and enigma whilst Robarts and Meyers are admirable adversaries at the top of their game.  Did Vole kill a wealthy widow to inherit her fortune? The evidence all points that way, but will a last-minute submission of evidence see justice served?

Neston Players’ home is the Civic Hall – a large open space with a small stage.  They are creative in their use of space, and for this performance, the scenery was incredibly minimal, which was an excellent decision.  The black box of the apron stage held the judge’s dais with a large crest – beautifully proportioned – hung behind.  The jury and public galleries were positioned on small, raised platforms in front of the proscenium, whilst the rest of the action took place on the auditorium floor.  The layout of the seats created a thrust performance space, at very close quarters with the audience.  This enhanced the intense nature of the play and allowed for a real fly-on-the-wall experience.  The simple staging enhanced the drama and allowed the words to take their rightful place in the spotlight. The furniture used was authentic and well-proportioned.  It was well-chosen to serve double duty in chambers as well as in the court room.  It was efficiently handled by the cast, who delivered seamless, fuss-free, and speedy changes when required.  Items such as handbags, telephones, pens, dossiers, and files were all fitting to the period of the play and to the status of the characters.  A very well-considered collection of props – well done. The pre-set on arrival was atmospheric and I particularly liked the Lady Justice gobo on the floor.  There was a very well-thought-out use of music, starting the moment the house was opened and continuing throughout. 

The play opens in Sir Wilfred Robarts QC’s (James Richards) chambers and here is the chance to establish his character, his arrogance, and his reputation.  Mr Carter (Gordon Wallis), Greta (Isabelle Clarke) and Mayhew (Richard Dodd) dance attendance on Robarts in contrast to Vole, when he is introduced - who seems way out of his depth in the company of an acute professional mind.  This scene set the tone for the rest of the play really well.  The status of all characters is established in their demeanour, voice, and body language.  It was disappointing not to have a full set of London accents, but the cast were, in general, distinct with their dialogue and projected well.  The focus on the dialogue from directors Cheryl Baker and Sarah McGinty was clear.

James is a consummate performer with elegant poise and that natural performer’s sixth-sense for an audience and, apart from an odd stumble over a line, he was in control of his very wordy dialogue.  He had the charisma of a lauded QC with an almost permanent smile and a cock-surety that hinted at humiliation to come.  James played Robarts as an expert in his field, delighted in his own cleverness with a disregard for others.  His physicality was good, and I particularly enjoyed the mimicry of Myers.

Richard Dodd was a safe pair of hands for the role of Mayhew.  His stagecraft, diction and delivery were all very good.  He knew his place in the hierarchy but was not swamped by his character’s superiors.  Like many other supporting performers, he had long tranches with no dialogue - he stayed in character and engaged with the action throughout.

Gavin played the part of Vole with enthusiasm.  It seemed to take a while for him to settle but once he did this was an excellent performance, although Vole’s accent was a little too Northern for a Londoner of the 1950’s.  However, Gavin’s physicality was superb, he radiated the nervous energy and agitation of a man in dire straits, at the mercy of others.  Perhaps he was too convincing – it was difficult to suppose that any member of the audience wasn’t convinced he was innocent. 

Isabelle Clarke played Greta as a simpering and ingratiating clerk; a tad star-struck by the handsome intelligent men of the practice.  This was a strong performance from a youth performer, and we saw Isabelle again in a different role in the courtroom.

Gordon Wallis comported himself excellently as the affable clerk to Robarts QC.  His body language and deference were exactly right for a man of his position.  He gave of the perfect air of a long-suffering and under-appreciated member of staff.

With a visit from Romaine (Vole’s wife), the intrigue sets in.  She was a delightful mix of blunt yet aloof and her answers to Robarts’ questions added comedy as well as mystery.  Is she lying? Double bluffing?  Louise Ellinson gave my favourite performance of the evening. She was graceful and dignified, with a superb accent, that never slipped, who drew attention the moment she stepped on stage. Louise is one of those performers who inspires utter confidence from the audience, even as they doubt and double doubt her character.  She held her nerve through each twist in her character’s behaviour and played her many comedic or shocking moments with relish.  This was a performer in super control of her art.

As the doubts start to settle in for Robarts and his team, we move to the court rooms of the Old Bailey. Once in court, there were the usual array of court staff – all played authentically.  A point of high credit to this performance was the believability of every cast member – including the non-speaking Jurors and Public Gallery members who showed high levels of focus and engagement throughout.  They watched and reacted as though the material were as fresh to them as it was to us the audience.  No mean feat, given the number of rehearsals they must have sat through!

I would like to make special mention of Emma Maddocks in the role of the Stenographer, who was very much in the spotlight due to her position on stage.  Despite having no dialogue, I couldn’t help but watch her in some of the key moments of revelation.  Every time, she was in character and laser focused.  Her excellent facial expressions added to the moments of shock, disapproval, or humour.

As Mr Justice Wright, Martin Riley presided over the courtroom with authority. He was clear and well-spoken as befit his character - legal-speak is never an easy learn.  He was a most suitable judge for the evening. Stuart Harper, as Mr Myers QC for the prosecution, was an admirable adversary for James.  He handled the courtroom with assurance and was adept in his stagecraft on a thrust stage.  He was clear and precise, in both dialogue and movement - with a lovely little hair swoop to raise a chuckle. 

An array of witnesses are called to the stand, here we see Isabelle again – this time as Dr Wyatt - and also David Noble as Chief Inspector Hearne, Helen Neal as Mrs Clegg, Sam Bevan as the Court Clerk, Neale Cooper as the Warden, and Simon Deere as the Policeman.  The dialogue from these performers was strong and clear.  They all performed well and were suited to their roles. In particular, Rebecca Burke-Sharpe played the jealous housekeeper (Janet McKenzie) with good physicality – making what was the best entrance of the night, establishing her character’s status and feelings before she even took the stand. Janet was convincing as both innocent and guilty at the same time and provided much levity in the court scenes.

The action takes part mainly in court or in chambers – when we moved, briefly, to the dockside, this was affected with atmospheric lighting and the judicious use of haze (a commodity that is often spread too liberally – but not here!).

The twists and turns of the evidence as it comes to light, cause the tension to build.  The brilliance of Christie is that just as you are sure of your chosen guilty party, contradictory facts are revealed, and you change your mind.  Never was this more so than with Romaine’s testimony - it is not until the verdict is delivered that we even begin to understand what was driving her to say the things she did.  And when Vole delivered his final vault-face the performance comes to its ultimate crescendo.  Here Kitty Clements plays a girl we have only heard of right until this last moment – revealing Vole’s true motives at last. 

The closing scenes of the play were a delight, and not just because all the confusion unravelled so the audience understood the case.  It also gave our characters the chance to display their motives and misconceptions which allowed the performers to show yet more talent as they reacted to the truth of the proceedings: Robarts’ shock at his failure to perceive the real facts, Romaine’s distress as she realises she has been manipulated and Vole’s self-satisfaction as he believes he has out-witted everyone.

This cast was an incredibly cohesive group, all highly focused on the performance and with a clear desire for excellence. They were artfully directed, well-drilled, and clearly spoken with a good command of the thrust stage. There were some castings that were somewhat older or younger than the character required – but this is to be expected in community theatre and did not serve to distract from what was a super ensemble performance. 

Much praise must go the costume department.  The costumes were, across the board, excellent.  Each character was dressed appropriately to the time and to their status.  The vintage police uniform was effective, and the ladies’ hats a delight.  Attention had been paid to shoes, accessories and even stockings!

Sarah McGinty & Cheryl Barker gave us a very well-considered, carefully blocked, and deceptively simply staged performance.  The layers of suspicion were well-woven: Romaine and Janet McKenzie both gave the audience pause (Romaine, in particular, had sharp twists and turns, which could have been confusing but instead, her trajectory served to enhance the mystery well); Vole was less nuanced in this respect (he was so staunch in his declaration of his innocence that he was utterly believable.  I felt that a little suspicion should have been cast his way too).  Each performer had studied their character’s physical and vocal style - posture, gait, habits, and voice were well-developed in each of the leads (examples of this include Janet McKenzie’s body language in the stand, Robarts’ poise, Mr Carter’s slight stoop, and Vole’s nervous energy throughout).

The entire ensemble all portrayed authentic and fully formed characters.  Very believable and clear in each of their purposes.

This was sensitive and confident handling of a classic and well-known piece of theatre.  No gimmicks here – just a good solid rendition of a favourite court room drama. This is clearly a society with high standards for itself and the attention to detail was excellent. Here is an instance where amateur theatre, presented in a small village hall, bucks all preconceptions.  The audience in Neston were treated to a high-quality performance of a well-loved, classic drama.  The script was well chosen and suited the strengths of the performers and the supporting crew.

I notice from the programme that there were a combination of regulars, visitors, and newcomers in the cast – they were an excellent ensemble with opportunity for a range of experiences. This was a very commendable and enjoyable performance - well worth the drive from Yorkshire!

I would like to express my thanks to you all at Neston Players for welcoming me so warmly to your society. I hope the rest of the run was successful and wish you all the best for your future productions.