A grand presentation of Agatha Christie’s popular whodunit of 1953, Witness for the Prosecution, closes out Bristol Riverside Theatre’s 30th anniversary season with a bang. Directed by Susan D. Atkinson, the play (later adapted for the 1957 hit film starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power) not only offers a thoroughly engrossing courtroom drama/murder mystery filled with the all-time best-selling author’s signature twists, turns, and surprise ending, but also presents a savvy look at pre-feminist mid-century attitudes towards women.
Accused in 1950s London of murdering a wealthy spinster who befriended him, the unemployed American Leonard Vole proclaims his innocence to investigators, attorneys, and the court, but his German-born wife Romaine is the only one who can provide him with a solid alibi. When she takes the stand against him and swears that he confessed his guilt to her, the lawyers, judge, and jury must consider all of the testimony and evidence, along with the characters’ disparate personalities and ulterior motives, to determine what really happened and who is telling the truth – the ingenuous and amiable man or the cold and calculating woman.
Alternating between scenes in the defense counsel chambers and The Old Bailey Central Criminal Court, the intriguing production is performed by a top-notch cast that delivers both the increasingly tense drama and the intermittent counterpoints of humor. Keith Baker is a standout as Queen’s Counsel Sir Wilfrid Robarts, committed to the case, commanding in court, and convinced of his client’s innocence, until growing suspicions make him re-evaluate his confidence in the accused. Carl Wallnau as Vole’s solicitor Mr. Mayhew gives Baker fine support, as they discuss the points of the confounding crime, sneak cigars and liquor when they should be drinking tea, and consider the credibility of the suspect and the witnesses against him, with misogynist comments like “Never trust a woman” and “Mrs. Vole is an evil woman” – which elicited nervous laughter from the opening-night audience.
Matt Leisy is fully affable and believable as Leonard Vole, as he offers his voluntary statements, describes his genial relationship with the victim, and reacts with heartfelt dismay to the incriminating testimony. Eleanor Handley as Mrs. Vole is, by contrast, harsh, unsympathetic, and “cool as a cucumber” in her unexpected betrayal of her husband. Sharon Alexander turns in a powerful performance as Janet Mackenzie, the victim’s housemaid, who gives an impassioned account of her distaste for Vole and her unshakeable belief in his guilt. Leonard C. Haas as Mr. Myers, the prosecuting Q.C., provides some bits of comic relief with his exaggerated throat-clearing and less-than-brilliant objections and arguments, as does Kyra Leeds as Robarts’ ditzy secretary Greta, and James Luse as the incompetent forensic expert Mr. Clegg.
Along with the professional cast, a large ensemble of community players fills out the roles of jurors, barristers, and court staff and adds to the production’s look of realism, and dialect coaching by Rebecca Simon contributes to the actors’ array of authentic-sounding European accents. Jason Simms’ imposing set design evokes the hallowed English aged-wood interiors and efficiently switches from chambers to courtroom, while costumes by Gina Andreoli include vintage-style clothing and traditional wigs and silks.
Did he or didn’t he? Find out in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s enthralling production of Witness for the Prosecution.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.