London Stories: An Agatha Christie masterpiece

“You have been summoned for jury service.”

Date/Time: Sun 29 July 2018 15:00 (3 pm)

Location: London County Hall, Central Gallery, Row B, Seat 24

Jury service? Yes — and I went willingly. The occasion? I had bought myself a ticket to see Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” while in London last summer. The play, then 10 months into its run, was being staged in the magnificent London County Hall on the south bank of the River Thames.

July 29 was to be my last full day in London before flying home after teaching a two-week course in the city. I wanted to end on a high note, with a dose of arts and culture. I could not have asked for a better experience.

The setting was grand. The production was fabulous. It was one of those moments when I had to pinch myself and appreciate the circumstances that had brought me here: I was teaching a study-abroad class for the first time and exploring the British capital with six students from the Portland area. And now I was watching live theater in a nearly century-old building.

London County Hall, opened in 1922, sits on the south bank of the River Thames, flanked on one side by the London Eye.

After a farewell dinner on Friday night, my students and I went our separate ways on the final weekend of the program. I wound up here. Not in the West End theater district, but several miles away at the elegant London County Hall, which began construction before the First World War and opened in 1922, The building originally housed the London County Council government offices, but today it is home to two hotels, several restaurants, apartments and tourist attractions.

County Hall is next to the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel, and across the Thames from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Little wonder that this photogenic building in a tourist hot spot attracts so much attention.

Approaching the building from the south side, you enter a spacious foyer and climb a marble staircase which takes you into the theater. My seat was in the second level, perfectly centered and looking down at the stage. I was at the end of a row seated next to a friendly woman my age. Her name was Laura, as I recall, and she had come with her husband and grandchildren. She said they were retired and came in from the suburbs regularly for performances just like this.

The production itself was superb. Agatha Christie was a master storyteller, and this play was adapted from one of her short stories published way back in 1925. When she died in 1979 at age 85, she had written 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels, more than 20 plays and upwards of 150 short stories. With more than 2 billion books published, she was outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

In “Witness for the Prosecution,” the story centers on themes of justice, passion and betrayal in a courtroom setting. A young man, Leonard Vole, is accused of murdering a widow to inherit her wealth. Leonard is brought to trial and we, the audience, quickly lose ourselves in the gripping drama as he and other witnesses, including his callous wife, are called to testify. At stake is a possible death sentence if he is found guilty.

Even some 10 months after I saw the play, I have fond memories of losing myself in a world-class production featuring British stage actors at the top of their craft. Along with sharp dialogue and crystalline acoustics, there are white-wigged jurists and swift set changes that keep the story moving to its climax — and then to a surprising, alternate ending.

When I came home, I was excited to share the experience with my wife. I rented a DVD of the 1957 film adaptation starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich and directed by Billy Wilder.

The movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but watching it six decades later, I had to wonder why. Viewing it on the small screen in black and white, I was put off by the appalling sexism embodied by Laughton’s character. Did I miss all that in London? Or was the dialogue toned down for a modern audience?

In any event, catching this matinee performance was a highlight among highlights during my short stay in London. In just five more weeks, I’ll return to teach the same class, this time with 10 students in tow from Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver.

Lori will join me toward the tail end of the program, so we can have a few days together to explore the city.

We definitely want to see a play or two. I just may try to talk her into seeing this one. It’s scheduled to continue its run through March 2020. #SeeYouinCourt

One thought on “London Stories: An Agatha Christie masterpiece

  1. I love that you’re getting to pinch yourself again and again in this chapter of life! And that’s great to hear that Lori gets to join you at the end of this round. You’ll have to let me know what WSU students are joining you. If they have to take my course still, find a way to work in the importance of attribution and comma use.

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