One of the best parts of visiting London is going to the theatre, and on a recent trip, we got to have a very different theatre experience in a very special place. I’m not a huge Agatha Christie fan, but when it was announced that there would be a special production of Witness for the Prosecution in the former London County Hall, I knew I would have to try and go the next time I was in London. And we did, and it was fabulous.
First some context. London County Hall is on the Southbank, almost directly across from the Houses of Parliament. From 1922 until 1986, it was the seat of London government. First with the London County Council (LCC) and later the Greater London Council (GLC), which was abolished in 1986 in an act of political retribution by the Thatcher government (you can read more about this here). Since the GLC was abolished, the building was sold off and has been turned into hotels and various other entertainment destinations (like the London Aquarium).
But the former debating chamber of the GLC has been left untouched. It’s a protected monument, and there’s not much the new owners can do with the space. It’s a beautiful space, designed to be a working debating chamber and it’s rarely ever open to the public. The owners of the building recently found a good use for the space, as a stage. Witness for the Prosecution is a unique play – since most of it takes place in a courtroom, the County Hall debating chamber is perfect to act as a stage for a courtroom since the seating and the layout of the space are a bit like a courtroom. The play opened last autumn to rave reviews.
I’m a bit of an architecture nerd, and I have wanted to see the GLC debating chamber for a number of years. Honestly, I was a little more excited about seeing the chamber than seeing the play! Thankfully, both were amazing.
We started the evening with a lovely dinner at Burger and Lobster, a trendy new restaurant chain that serves only two things: hamburgers and lobsters. It’s a restaurant designed to appeal to Mrs. Anglotopia and I (she for the lobster, me for the burger). After dinner, we took a taxi to the dreaded place that taxi drivers generally don’t want to go: SOUTH OF THE RIVER. It wasn’t a busy night, and traffic wasn’t a problem at all. The Taxi dropped us off at a courtyard that leads right to the door of County Hall.
When you’re up close to County Hall, it strikes you as massive. It’s definitely a stately building and it was very much a suitable place to run the capital of the former British Empire from. It’s a shame it’s no longer used for its purpose (London was given a mayor again in 2000 along with a new government structure).
We picked up our tickets at Will Call and were led to our seats. What a treat they were! Your actual seats are the same seats where the politicians used to sit. Each seat turns into a little desk. The pads there are signed by the former occupants of the seats. The chamber was pretty dimly lit to provide an atmosphere for the play. But my what a treat it was to finally be inside the chamber itself. Attendants were encouraged to take pictures, and I took a ton – who knows when I will be able to go into the room again.
What’s the play about? One of Christie’s best – Leonard Vole is accused of murdering a widow to inherit her wealth. The stakes are high – will Leonard survive the shocking witness testimony, will he be able to convince the jury, and you of his innocence and escape the hangman’s noose?
The atmosphere in the chamber was perfect for a play primarily set at a trial. The director has made excellent use of the space with the doors all around the chamber opening and closing for entries and exits. The cast was amazing. One innovative element is that there are special jury box seats and the audience members are sworn in as the jury (and instructed to give the right verdict). The plot was engaging; I’d never seen any adaptation of this play, so I had no idea what to expect. There were certainly lots of twists and turns (I wouldn’t expect anything less from Christie).
Here’s a gallery of some of the pictures I took myself:
We really enjoyed our evening out and can’t recommend going to see this play in it unique location more highly. Witness for the Prosecution is currently booking at London County Hall until 16 September 2018. See the website for more information. www.witnesscountyhall.com. To get there you can take the Tube to Westminster and walk across Westminster Bridge or take the tube to Waterloo, which is nearby. The immediate area around County Hall is full of hotels and restaurants, so it’s not a bad area by any means. You shouldn’t have any problems finding a taxi.