Bristol Riverside Theatre’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ an appealing courtroom whodunit
By Michael Elkin, correspondent
Long before “Law & Order” lorded over the TV legal landscape with its twist-and-shout plot lines, Agatha Christie had built the better mousetrap for capturing complex and topsy-turvy turns of the human condition with “Witness for the Prosecution.”
The hallucinatory English whodunit, which she adapted for the stage in 1953 from her 1925 story, puts truth on the stand and on the defensive in a courtroom conflict that careens wildly but compellingly. Leonard Vole is put on trial for the murder of a smitten wealthy widow who has made him the sole recipient of her considerable estate. But why has his loving wife, Romaine, turned iceberg and taken the stand against him as a witness for the prosecution?
The answer — and its attendant chilling complications — suffuse this drama in a production now being staged by the Bristol Riverside Theatre.
This production testifies to Christie’s considerable talent to thrill and spill out devilishly misleading moments of mystery as audiences get reeled in on her forensic fishing trip, baited by the writer’s many red herrings.
The estimable Christie had made a killing by never underestimating society’s capacity for evil, and this play capped her decades-long career — made into a movie and a number of remakes; the original, in 1957, was nominated for six Academy Awards, and gained acclaim for Charles Laughton as barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, and Tyrone Power, in his last completed role, as his client, Vole — as well as TV versions.
Her “Witness for the Prosecution” reveals are shocking — but which one is real? It would be criminal to give away the roller-coaster comeuppance with its ins-and-outs, ups-and-downs.
It is to the credit of the cast at BRT that they can lead the audience astray as much as Christie has created a maze of murderous moments for theatergoers to ponder. This deliciously deceitful drama is guilty of some gut-wrenching direction by Susan D. Atkinson that not so much drains the swamp of human sewerage as dredges its detritus for public display.
Yet, the first act’s courtroom scene — and an unfortunately extended one it is — doesn’t have the Christie crackle that would later electrify the second act’s confrontation in the Old Bailey, where truth is seduced by some seedy characters with surreptitious needs.
Though the 90-minute first act is stretched to the limits, it has nothing to do with the talents of the superb actors who play witnesses to the wickedness that crates the human soul. How marvelous is Keith Baker as Robarts, the roar of a defense lawyer whose belief in the system is diffused to a whimper by trial’s end, when his seemingly innocuous and innocent client Vole turns viper uncaged by the jury’s verdict.
Matt Leisy lays into the character with an appreciation of how a smile and gentle facade can mask a menacing marauder inside. Sharon Alexander’s Janet Mackenzie is a housekeeper who knows trash when she sees it, and is eager — in an amazingly studied manner delivered by Alexander — to put the garbage that she believes Vole to be in the can, behind bars.
But Eleanor Handley handily wins top honors for her densely layered and outwardly lacquered demonic Romaine, laden with emotional depth-charges she explodes every time she’s on stage as the inscrutable wife with the withering countenance.
Her witty handling of the role as an unwavering witness against Vole speaks volumes of an understanding of both love and passion that can play out in the most unaccountable and uncontrolled ways. Her deftness and defining portrayal are incandescent in an already sparkling cast, which plays out its sordid story on a revolving set, an invaluable supporting player all its own, designed by Jason Simms.
After an initial misstep with “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” but succeeding for the most part with its subsequent productions, BRT has concluded its 30th anniversary season with this pearl of a production that is at once evergreen and ever-great, proving that death is not proud nor, as in Christie’s case, necessarily predictable.