Brantley in Britain: Review: Agatha Christie’s Murder Most Orderly and the Comfiest Seats in London

Philip Hammond

Most of the action takes place in the orderly, ritualized precincts of Her Majesty’s Court, presided over by a bewigged judge. It is here that one Leonard Vole (Jack McMullen), a young man of puppyish handsomeness and fitful employment, is on trial for his life.

Leonard is accused of murdering a benevolent old lady who took a fancy to him and has conveniently left him a bundle. But his attorney, the estimable Sir Wilfrid Robarts QC (David Yelland), is convinced of his client’s innocence as well as the integrity of the British justice system.

Now if only Leonard’s dodgy wife, Romaine (Catherine Steadman), will provide her husband with the alibi he requires. There’s a problem, though. She’s German, and English jurors are known to be suspicious of folks from that nation. Even Sir Wilfrid wonders if she’s to be trusted.

“I suspect there’s lot of fire beneath that Teutonic self-control,” he observes to Mr. Myers (Philip Franks), his associate and personal Dr. Watson. And if you flinched in reading that choice bit of dialogue, then “Witness” is probably not for you.

Stereotypes are what Christie trafficked in. And part of her appeal is that you never feel all that invested in the fate of her characters. These paper-doll figures are components in a puzzle, and genuine, untidy humanness would dilute the pleasures of what is, ultimately, the narrative equivalent of an acrostic.

Mr. Yelland and Ms. Steadman are far less flashy and charismatic than Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, who brought their personal magnetism and eccentricity to the same roles in the Billy Wilder film. (Tyrone Power, as Vole, was the handsome cipher he always was.)

Ms. Bailey’s cast members are perfectly adequate in their roles, which is all they need to be. Their performances match Christie’s original, unfiligreed prose, and they don’t obstruct the view of the machinations of plot and court procedure.

And though you, the audience, more or less play the role of you the jury, there is very little in the way of interactive participation. You don’t even have to murmur “rhubarb, rhubarb” when an actor planted in your midst disrupts the proceedings, or a shocking revelation resounds from the witness box.

Mic Pool’s sound design has taken care of that, thank you, with convincing crowd noises. All you have to do is sit back passively in those blissfully comfy seats and pretend, for a leisurely couple of hours, that human behavior is quantifiable and understandable, and that justice prevails even if, or when (oh, horrors!), the judicial system itself gets it wrong.

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