British writer and life peer Lord Jeffrey Archer is a colourful character worthy of one of his own plays or novels. As a well known political personality since the late sixties, he rose to Chairman of the Conservative Party in the eighties, but his career was beset with scandal – bankruptcy, libel cases, accusations of corruption – and finally ended when he was charged, and later convicted, of perjury and sentenced to four years imprisonment. None of this seems to have hurt his writing career, however. His first novel was published in Britain in 1974 and several of his books have become best sellers – best known among them, perhaps, are Kane and Abel and First Among Equals – and his books and plays have been adapted for stage, screen and television.
The Accused was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, on 26 September, 2000 and starred Archer himself in the title role – ironically, since the opening coincided with his arrest for perjury! This fact threatened the production for a while, but the show went ahead and opened in London’s West End later that year.
The action of the play revolves around the trial of a respected surgeon who is accused of poisoning his wife. The details of the crime are introduced through police and professional witnesses but, ultimately, the case rests on a choice between the opposed testimonies of the accused and his accuser, a woman who claims to have been his mistress and a witness to the machinations that led to his wife’s death. The thoroughly engaging plot contains all the usual elements that make courtroom dramas entertaining: a compelling mystery with conflicting stories, red herrings and misinformation, unexpected twists and shocking revelations, not to mention the legal shenanigans and rivalries of the opposing counsels. All is presented with sharp and witty dialogue from a variety of strong characters. A dramatic device that further engages the audience in the action casts them in the role of the jury. They are required to decide on the guilt or innocence of “the prisoner” and thereby determine which of two possible outcomes the actors will present in the final act.
The Accused is the first play Pollyanna Forshaw has directed for Wyong Drama Group since her highly popular production of `Allo, `Allo in 2005, but more recently she has won praise for her hit shows Jesus Christ Superstar and Eurobeat with Wyong Musical Theatre Company. Now she brings her flair to the drama and intrigue of the courtroom, recreating the pomp and circumstance of London’s Central Criminal Court in the Wyong Memorial Hall. The commitment to this illusion was established from the outset with patrons being required to pass through a mock security gateway before making their way to their seats, and once in the theatre they were informed by an official announcement that they were entering The Old Bailey (and must, therefore, switch off their mobile phones!) Joshua Maxwell’s set was suitably impressive and imposing and particular kudos are due for the convincing effect of marble walls which were, in fact, hand painted. Well chosen music helped to establish the gravitas of the setting – the opening theme actually produced chills – and the performances of a strong cast brought out both the dramatic tension and the surprising humour inherent in the various adversarial relationships. Andrew Thompson and Brendon Flynn as opposing barristers immediately captivated the audience with great stage presence and timing, and the differing (but equally arrogant) charm of their characters. Niccy Hallam, in her first stage role since high school, was admirably assured as the Crown’s principle witness. She and WDG stalwart Marc Calwell (as the “accused” of the title) both gave convincing performances as two characters who, as it turned out, were also giving convincing performances. They received excellent support from the rest of the cast. Even those in minor parts showed complete commitment to their roles. New faces among the supporting cast showed great promise, and the other recent members confirmed themselves as valuable additions to the group.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed the performance and their own participation within it, even the requirement to stand for each entrance of the Judge and chorus “God Save the Queen” after the court usher. The back and forth between the barristers and the witnesses was completely engaging and thrilling. There were voluble gasps and cries from the spectators as the play progressed, and resounding applause at the end.
The verdict? WDG pulled off a resounding win!
The group’s next production (and last in the Wyong Memorial Hall) will be All My Sons by Arthur Miller. For more information visit http://wyongdramagroup.com.au
[Image courtesy of WDG publicity]