Agatha Christie’s adaptation of her own short story for the stage has also been made into a film starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich as well as an adaptation for television in the early 1980s. First performed in 1953 it is still going strong in theatres around the world today, but does it stand the test of time? Set in the original time period the authentic costumes reflected this instantly, from the formal court outfits to Leonard’s casual attire. I was less convinced by the mysterious woman’s outfit towards the end of the play - it seemed too bright and, along with the obvious wig, jarred with the naturalistic styles of the other characters.
The scenes flipped between Sir Wilfred’s chambers and the courtroom and the set very cleverly encompassed both locations with the minimum of disruption during the slick scene changes. The solid-looking wood panelling could have been stained a little darker but both settings were equally convincing and the height of the judge presiding over the court was an excellent touch.
The lighting was good although the lovely effect of the light coming in from the window caused distracting shadows on Leonard’s face when he moved downstage.
The play itself is a great suspenseful vintage thriller, full of the twists and turns that Agatha Christie does so well, keeping us guessing right up to the last moment as to the guilt of the accused, Leonard Vole. In this role, a well-cast Tallan Cameron gave us a likeable young man, perhaps not fully aware of the gravity of his situation, although in the first scene I felt that he was perhaps a little too relaxed, leaning on Sir Wilfred’s desk, given the formal surroundings and reason for his being there. Perhaps a little more tension in his body language would have hinted at an underlying anxiety? In the court scenes Tallan was completely focussed, listening intently and subtly reacting to the variety of witnesses giving evidence, and later revealing his true feelings towards his wife after the verdict.
By contrast, Mel Powell, as Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC was every inch the charismatic Senior Advocate - confident, clever and with a hint of the maverick flair that has earned him his formidable professional reputation. Taking us from the initial meeting with Leonard through his subsequent unconvincing encounter with Leonard’s German wife and into the court, skilfully probing the witnesses before him, sparring with his legal opponent Mr Myers (Andy Kirtley) and the ponderous Judge (Barry Lee), this was a delightful characterisation.
Andy Howell as the solicitor Mayhew made a solid foil to Sir Wilfred, dependable and trustworthy and all three men made a very convincing trio in court. Perhaps more could have been made of Mr Myers "tic" but as it was it there was a ripple of recognition from the audience, which along with the running gag of the pipe that never got lit supplied some light relief to the intensity of the courtroom scenes.
Emma Muir, in the titular role of Leonard’s cold, Germanic wife had a difficult part to play but I thought she captured the many emotions well - unconvincingly standing by her husband in the chambers before turning "witness for the prosecution" in court and then finally revealing her true motivations at the end of the play. I was less convinced by the "mockney" accent necessary in Act II - although I didn’t guess her true identity, the character didn’t seem "real" either in performance or costume - but maybe this was a deliberate decision by the director to highlight that she wasn’t who she seemed?
The supporting cast were all very strong especially Julia Ryan as the gossip-loving secretary Greta and Jackie Lawn as the devoted, suspicious housekeeper Janet McKenzie - both introduced some lovely touches to their character’s brief appearances.
Andy Lee’s sure-handed direction kept the pace going even through some very wordy scenes and ramped up the tension in the court while retaining the humour. I didn’t guess "whodunit" until the reveal at the end and was even less suspecting of the twist that followed! I did however think that the last scene rattled past at such a pace that it almost went for nothing. There had been such anticipation of the verdict and the subsequent "confession" that the final twist was almost lost, I don’t know if it was the pace, or just that everyone was speaking so fast, but it felt a tiny bit unsatisfying after all the previous build up. It did however get the desired response from the audience - there was an almost audible moment of "ahh, so THAT’s what happened!".
There were a few prompts on the night I came which was a shame but I did enjoy this production very much. Perhaps if you don’t like a good murder mystery it wouldn’t be the play for you, but I thought that CoPs did a great job with this fun piece of theatre and that Mel Powell’s nomination for the adjudicator’s award at Hertford Theatre Week was well deserved.
Review by Tiffany Breeze
Photographs by Steve Beeston