Harry Reid on why he could star in 'Witness for the Prosecution' for the rest of his life
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution celebrates its fifth birthday – an impressive run for any London show, but in particular for a straight play. Of course, one of the reasons that audiences can’t get enough of this whodunit in its unique venue. The play is staged in London County Hall, immersing audiences in a courtroom-like setting that makes its action feel very real – particularly the high stakes of this murder trial. If Leonard Vole is convicted, he will be hanged. And you, the audience, feel like the jury.
Young Vole is accused of killing a wealthy widow who had made him a beneficiary in her will. Now his wife, Romaine, has been called to testify – but will she protect him or condemn him while on the stand? It’s a typically fiendish Christie plot with plenty of brilliant twists and turns, and all of the characters have hidden motives.
No wonder that actor Harry Reid, who starred as Vole in 2018, has returned to such a juicy role. “I’ve gone down a completely different route with the character than I did before,” he teases. “I could do this show for the rest of my life – I’d always find something new within it.”
Reid, also known for playing Ben Mitchell in EastEnders, chatted to us about the extraordinary staging of the play, the pleasure of playing Leonard once again, and why this is the best possible theatre trip to make post-Covid.
Witness for the Prosecution is at London County Hall.
Book Witness for the Prosecution tickets on London Theatre.
Welcome back! How does it feel to be part of Witness again?
It’s been quite surreal – I’ve never had this experience before. It’s very exciting. It’s great to be back.
How was it making your professional stage debut in the show the first time round?
I was well happy! It was the first big thing I’d done in theatre – before that it was a couple of films and EastEnders. I came in as part of the second cast. I’m not a musicals person, so for me getting into a show of that level wasn’t a guarantee. I think it’s just brilliant — ever since I did it, I’ve been recommending people go see it.
What makes Witness for the Prosecution stand out?
It’s truly immersive theatre because of the setting. So everyone there feels like they’re properly involved in the play, because it’s this one massive courtroom. If you’re up in the gallery, you’re like the public gallery in the Old Bailey. Some plays, people come out in the interval talking about how they liked the costumes or whatever – with this, they’re properly obsessed with the case. They all want to know if Leonard’s guilty and what’s going to happen.
We have actors playing the court officials and the judge, and they do walkabouts in the interval, so they hear what people are saying. They always come back and relay it to the rest of us! It’s great, by that point they’ve had a lot of information to decode and piece together. It’s exciting that the audience gets to that level of engaged.
Does the setting help your performance too?
Definitely. It’s absolutely terrifying! We did a trip to the Old Bailey – these courtrooms, they’re meant to be intimidating. Just the size of the judge’s chair, or the barristers’ wigs. That’s the idea, showing that they’re authority figures.
London County Hall puts you right in that mindset. Even the building itself, before you come in, is incredible: all those plaques, the grand steps, the metal gates. And all credit to [director] Lucy Bailey, I won’t give anything away but the first scene sets up exactly what’s at stake, and she installed that.
What’s it like playing Leonard Vole again?
It’s great coming back, they’ve given me this opportunity to find something else with him. In the rehearsal process, I’ve gone down a completely different route with the character than I did before, then found a sort of middle ground. Usually in this industry you do a job, and then a month later it suddenly clicks “Oh, why didn’t I do that?”. You’ll never discover enough.
I had nine months on Witness before, and honestly I could do this show for the rest of my life — I’d always find something new within it. Credit to the other actors too: they’re all flipping brilliant. They bring new versions of the characters too, which helps with the discovery process.
Tell us about Leonard…
He’s described as a naïve, good-looking boy. I don’t know why they cast me – must be the naïve bit! [laughs] He’s a soft touch, a young boy you want to look after, because he seems a bit oblivious to the world. Obviously he’s on trial for murder, so something’s gone wrong!
We did a lot of work on backstories — plenty of improvisations around the script, doing scenes that would have happened before, so we could carry those relationships into the show. We’ve always said there could easily be a Witness for the Prosecution 2, or a prequel, or a whole series. There’s so much story here.
Like we know Leonard served in the war, out in Germany. That’s part of how these characters [Leonard and Romaine] met. We start at the moment that a lady’s been killed and this boy’s on trial. But you soon find out it’s a lot more complicated than that. Agatha is a genius: the villains of the piece, how it all comes out, it’s just incredible.
Why do you think the show is still so popular?
Well, celebrating its fifth birthday, it must be doing something right! There aren’t many plays that can say that. Other than The Mousetrap, which is Agatha too: she dominates the theatre world. I’ve had a few performances back and the audience reaction is as good as it was four years ago, or better. People get so involved in it.
The staging does that: we’re right on top of each other. When we go down the walkways, we’re so close to the audience that they feel they’re in it. At big moments often they gasp or even say something. I love that! As long as it’s not rude. In a normal theatre you’d feel like a heckler, shouting at the stage from way back, but here you’re on the stage. The barristers are sat next to audience members. It’s really inclusive.
That must feel particularly special after all those months of social distancing!
During Covid, I honestly thought that theatres were going to die. I thought it was the end. We have to salute all the producers and the company who kept this show afloat through that long period. Yeah, it’s so great to see everyone back in a room together, just sharing theatre, especially a really immersive show like this. Theatre’s something that’s been part of our world for generations; it’s a staple of this country.
Also this show is great because it’s not just for people who usually go to the theatre. You might think theatre’s not for you – my mates back in Gravesend aren’t really into theatre – but if you love watching murder mysteries, or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, or NCIS, this is the same kettle of fish. You’re right in the action and this piece keeps you engaged from start to finish: it’s life or death, it’s a mystery to solve. It’s more than just a play. And no one is better at this than Agatha Christie.
Photo credit: Harry Reid as Leonard Vole (Photos by Ellie Kurttz)
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