Focus Feature: 1st Anniversary for Witness for the Prosecution

A very Happy 1st Birthday to Witness for the Prosecution, following a critically and commercially successful opening year. The semi-immersive, site-specific revival of arguably Agatha Christie’s best stage play performs to near-sell-out audiences every night, and has already extended its run until next September. The production, taking place in the awe-inspiring setting of London’s County Hall council chambers since October 2017, has shown that Christie’s power to draw large theatre audiences goes far beyond The Mousetrap.

It is a fact largely overlooked that Christie is the most successful female playwright of all time. She wrote around 25 plays, nine of which opened in the 1940s and 1950s alone, and remains the only woman to have had three of her works running simultaneously in London’s West End. Ensuring these works are given the prominence they deserve, and keeping them relevant for modern theatre-going audiences, is a priority for Agatha Christie Limited.

Venue

The original concept to deliver Witness in real-life courtroom surroundings was devised by producer Rebecca Stafford, who trialled the idea in York in 2015. The show’s wider potential immediately became clear, and Stafford linked up with ACL and Eleanor Lloyd Productions to find it a suitable London home. At County Hall, the judge sits on a real throne, and members of the public can buy tickets for the jury seats, where one person has the daunting privilege of announcing the guilty/not guilty verdict.

“One of the key learnings of the entire project is what a difference the right venue can make”, says James Prichard, CEO and Chairman of ACL. “The play is fantastic in theatres, but it is completely elevated in this arena.” Director Lucy Bailey considers the South Bank space a gift: “It is almost like another character in a courtroom drama.”[1]

Production Partners

Confidence in choice of production partners is also vital. “You have to find the right projects and people to work with,” says James.[2]

Enter Bailey, boasting theatre-land credits as varied as The Graduate and Titus Andronicus. With a clear vision, she and the production team dedicated themselves to driving forward the strengths of Christie’s original script and dialing up the inherent melodrama to fit the specific surroundings and bring it to life.

“One of the things I’ve learned about directing Christie’s plays is that you have to commit to them, honour them and take them deadly seriously and then they repay you. Any hint that you are not taking them seriously and they fall apart,”1 she says.

It’s a partnership that has paid dividends. “What Lucy has done with Witness for the Prosecution has opened up the eyes of the theatre world,” says James. “There is now an air of confidence that modern audiences will enjoy these brilliant productions.”2

Marcomms

Behind the scenes, the marketing and communications teams at EMG and Cornershop PR have had fun with the campaign, with straplines including "See you in court" and "You have been summoned" creating a sense of show and special occasion. The experiential nature of the production, coupled with the expectation of murder and twists that a Christie play brings, has seen the introduction of intriguing social and online assets that draw the audience in. The campaign deliberately invested heavily in very good audio visual material from the start. 

Charlotte Ward, from EMG, added "The word of mouth on the show has been incredible, and we have done what we can to amplify this, encouraging reviews on social, creating moments in the campaign when we have had celebrities see the show and recommend it, and encouraging group and familiarity nights where group bookers or agents get to see the show in advance to help sell it to their various clients."

They also focused on targeting overseas visitors, particularly in the US and China, working with partners at Visit London and travel specialists. 

The Story

The venue, the experience, the hype: what it all ultimately comes down to is Agatha Christie’s story.

“The dark motifs in her stories will always be fascinating,” says Lucy Bailey. “The capacity to kill and the capacity to deceive are timeless. These are the things we feed off… Love and darkness are at the centre of human nature, and the appeal of that will never go away.”[3]

*****

[1] From an interview with theatre critic Lyn Gardner

[2] From an interview with Theo Bosquanet

[3] From an interview with the Herald Scotland

Vital Statistics

  • 367 seats
  • Prices range from an accessible £12.50 in the gallery, to VIP Jury tickets at £95.
  • Jury tickets include two drinks and a programme, plus theatre goers can pay for the privilege of reading out the guilty/not guilty verdict.
  • The play is 2hr15 in length, including a 20 min interval.
  • London County Hall is situated on the South Bank of the River Thames beside the London Eye and the Westminster Bridge, and opposite the Houses of Parliament. 
  • County Hall was officially opened by King George V and Queen Mary on 17 July 1922 after construction began prior to the First World War in 1911.
  • For 64 years, County Hall served as the headquarters of local government for London, initially the London County Council and later the Greater London Council.

What they say

★★★★★ ‘CLASSIC CHRISTIE. THE QUEEN OF CUNNING HAS BEEN BRILLIANTLY SERVED’  DAILY MAIL

★★★★ ‘A DELIGHT. GUILTY OF BEING A GOOD NIGHT OUT’  THE ARTS DESK

★★★★ ‘CHRISTIE'S COURTROOM DRAMA IN THE GRAND CHAMBER AT COUNTY HALL ENTERTAINS, AMUSES AND UNSETTLES’  DAILY TELEGRAPH

★★★★ ‘AGATHA CHRISTIE’S INGENIOUS COURTROOM DRAMA FITS PERFECTLY IN COUNTY HALL’  GUARDIAN 

Find out more at www.witnesscountyhall.com