The Madras Players staged ‘Witness For The Prosecution', as a homage to Agatha Christie in the 120th year of her birth

People getting up to leave before a play is over can't be a good sign. Unless it is a murder mystery.

Several members of the audience readied to applaud as the plot wound to a perfunctorily happy ending. Then all of a sudden, in the space of less than a minute, the lights changed, the plot plummeted, characters turned treacherous, and we are thrown head-first down an almost vertical denouement.

Never, ever make the mistake of second-guessing Agatha Christie.

The Madras Players paid homage to the Dame of crime in her 120th year of birth, staging her ‘Witness For The Prosecution' — one of the only four novels in which she allows the evil-doer to escape. Later, greatly dissatisfied with the ending, she rewrote it when she adapted it for the stage.

The wealthy, elderly Emily French, “who lived in a house that smelled a bit of cat”, has been murdered. And all of the circumstantial evidence points to an earnest young man, Leonard Vole. The only one who can help is his wife Christine, who has an alibi to his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

But during the trial, the cold and mysterious Christine astonishes everyone by appearing as a witness for the prosecution, and demolishes his alibi. The case seems lost.

It is no simple feat to keep a play alive when its most significant parts are congregated at the very end; and the veterans of The Madras Players, directed by Yamuna N.S., pulled all the stops on their old-worldly charm to do so.

The conversations between the portly Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Leonard's brilliant defence lawyer, and solicitor Mayhew alone could make for a phenomenal study of litigation, not to mention human behaviour. Sir Wilfrid's maid, Greta, however, bore a startling resemblance to an airhostess, who, though dropped into the middle of a British courtroom drama from the 1950s, briskly continued with her work — red pumps, folded scarf, skirt and a doubled over “Would you care for some tea?”

Back to the story. Providence arrives in the form of a dishevelled woman, her face marred by scars, who hands Sir Wilfrid letters written by Christine to her lover, Max. They explain how she plans to lie to the jury, so that Leonard would be arrested, leaving them free to walk into the sunset together.

The jury finds Leonard not guilty; Christine faces jail for lying under oath.

Christine splendidly delivers her sharp lines with frigidity; the severe woman calmly guarding the skeletons in her closet. Some of the best scenes in the play are between her and Sir Wilfrid — “Do you love your husband?” he bellows. “Well, Leonard says I do,” says she, shrugging.

Leonard himself, though, came into his own in only the last third of the play, leaving much to be desired in his character. French's disgruntled and heavily-accented housekeeper deserves a mention, as does Inspector Hearne, with the quintessential slicked-back hair and clad in characteristic blue.

At the end of it all, it was a play with the colours and warmth of an evening spent with a glass of brandy by the fireplace; though it did flag in parts, which was surprising for a murder mystery.

And the last one minute of the play? Exposing the contradictions in, and playing with the psychology of the jury, Agatha Christie's Christine reveals that her beloved husband really was the killer; she had been protecting him all along. Just as we realise that the old hag with the letters had been Christine herself, a young woman runs into the now-confident Leonard's arms, and he introduces her as his girlfriend. Christine, realising that he has deceived her, declares, “If I must go to jail, it will not be for perjury — it will be for murder.” Just as the lights dim, Christine stabs Leonard Vole. Revenge, served cold and sweet.