Witness for the Prosecution Review | Step inside the magnificent surroundings of London County Hall and experience the intensity and drama of Agatha Christie’s gripping story of justice, passion and betrayal in a unique courtroom setting. Leonard Vole is accused of murdering a widow to inherit her wealth. The stakes are high – will Leonard survive the shocking witness testimony, will he be able to convince the jury, and you of his innocence and escape the hangman’s noose?
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution has been intriguing amateur sleuths since 1925 when she first penned the story in her short story ”Traitor’s Hands”. Originally adapted into a stage play in 1953 by Christie, the play has seen the West End, Broadway and a film adaptation. This current production of Witness for the Prosecution takes place in the stunning London County Hall, which served as the headquarters of London’s local government until 1986. The play is performed in-the-round, with the site-specific courthouse setting allowing for very effective immersion during the courthouse scenes.
The show has been described as both immersive and interactive, so, as this is The Escape Roomer, my review will be in two parts. The first will look at the show as a piece of theatre and the second will focus on the immersive and interactive elements of Witness for the Prosecution.
I originally had tickets for Witness for the Prosecution at the end of March 2020 (we all know how that turned out), so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see the play two years later. Director Lucy Bailey immediately establishes a superb level of tension in the nightmarish opening sequence, with Mic Pool’s sound design particularly getting my heart pounding before the courtroom is transformed into the play’s secondary setting: the accused’s barrister’s office. As an American who had spent one entire summer interning at a law firm, occasionally making it into the city’s courts, I was intrigued to see if there were any differences in the British legal system. My takeaway: it seems that we basically stole everything except for the wigs.
The County Hall is a stunning venue that immediately transports you into the drama and sets the stakes as life or death. My seat in the courtroom stalls was perhaps the comfiest theatre seat I’ve had the pleasure to sit in for two hours. As the performance is in-the-round, you are basically guaranteed to have a great view, although note that there are quite a few flights of stairs to get up to the seats in the galleries.
Christie’s script is well-paced and timeless, touching on issues of class, gender relations and xenophobia, without ever feeling dated despite being a period piece. The introduction to the case is in the defendant’s barrister’s office, who, as portrayed by Jonathan Firth, has all the wit, vivacity and presence that you’d expect of one of Christie’s detectives. Our defendant Leonard Vole’s arc is actually a very interesting examination of male vulnerability, the role is played with a great deal of sensitivity and range by Joe McNamara throughout the piece.
Witness for the Prosecution is at its best during the courtroom scenes, which allows the site-specific setting as well as its full company of actors to shine. There are many non-speaking characters in the play as various members of the court. In particular, I found myself drawn to the court stenographer, played by Lorna Lowe, who fittingly was an attorney before training at Lamda. Without drawing focus, her reactions to the scandalous court proceedings added a level of realism that reminded me of my time spent observing court cases.
As this is Agatha Christie, of course, this is no mere courtroom drama, it is also a mystery. Christie’s clever plotting leads us through several twists and turns, and if you’ve managed to remain unspoiled, trying to solve the case alongside the characters is a great deal of fun. Although my guest and I had different guesses of ‘whodunnit’, I must admit we were both entirely wrong. Leave it to Agatha Christie to be ten steps ahead of us even half a century later. Overall, Witness for the Prosecution is a gripping murder mystery and a beautifully-executed piece of theatre.
Immersion and Interactivity
Sorry Brecht, but the appeal of immersive theatre appears to be here to stay. Over the past few decades, immersion and interactivity have become increasingly prevalent buzzwords in the entertainment industry. The terms are often conflated, but as readers of The Escape Roomer, I hope you’ll indulge me with a brief, very nerdy examination of the two terms. I turn to my favourite scholarly article on the subject (yes, I do have a favourite): Catherine Bouko’s “Interactivity and Immersion in a media-based performance” from 2014. If you are a nerd like me, I highly recommend reading the whole article, but here is my cliff notes version of my understanding of her definitions:
There are three levels of immersion: the first involves the breaking down of the “fourth wall” between performers and actors, the second has the audience placed within an environment and narrative, and the third (which is nearly impossible to achieve without VR or similar technology) sees the audience experiencing confusion between reality and fiction.
A clear definition of interactivity and its varying degrees is more elusive: the baseline for interactivity involves some form of reaction to the participant from the performance, more advanced interactivity allows the audience to make choices that will affect the narrative in a predetermined way, while the final stage of interactivity allows the audience to affect the narrative in unforeseen ways beyond the control of the performance. It’s actually very rare for experiences that we might describe as interactive to reach the later stages of interactivity, as most interactive experiences have a predetermined outcome (or outcomes).
In a way, all live theatre is in some sense both interactive and immersive, as actors on stage feed off the energy and reactions of the audience, allowing the audience to interact with the performance and audience members often feel immersed in a production through the magic of live theatre. That being said, this is The Escape Roomer, so let’s break down how much immersion and interactivity you can expect in Witness for the Prosecution.
Is Witness for the Prosecution Immersive or Interactive?
Witness for the Prosecution certainly has immersive elements, chief among them being its site-specific setting. According to the very trusty source of an uncited claim on Wikipedia, “it was always Christie’s wish to see the play in a site-specific location”, and if that is indeed true, you can easily see why: it is a stunningly effective way to bring you into the world of the play. This immersion is slightly undercut during the times when setting switches, despite the set changes being beautifully realised through direction, lighting and sound. While Christie’s script is tightly woven as is, it would be interesting to see a version of the play that was adapted to take place entirely in the courtroom.
The interactive elements of the play are limited to the VIP Jury tickets who decide the fate of the accused. Notably, the tickets come with a reminder that “as a member of the Jury you must shut out from your minds everything except what will take place during the trial”, which seems quite a difficult task as the entire performance plays out in front of you. I was not a member of the jury, so I cannot truly attest to the level of interactivity of the experience. That being said, from my outside perspective, there seemed to be some limit to the amount of influence they had on how the play unfolds. That being said, it seems like an excellent VIP theatrical experience, where you become part of the show and have an increased level of immersion: throughout the play, witnesses, solicitors and the judge speak directly to the jury, the jury has a brief moment to deliberate and the jury foreman gets to announce the verdict.
Taking this all into account, if asked specifically about the level of immersion and interactivity, I would describe Witness for the Prosecution as a really fantastically executed site-specific piece of theatre that creates a heightened level of theatrical immersion. If you are interested in more immersion, as well as elements of interactivity, I’d recommend going for the VIP Jury tickets. And of course, as with any Agatha Christie mystery, the audience gets to put on their detective hats and decide for themselves: whodunit?
Witness for the Prosecution can be booked at London County Hall here.