Joe McNamara will play Leonard Vole when Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution returns to London’s County Hall this month. The production, directed by Lucy Bailey, had just celebrated its 1000th performance when theatres were forced to close in March 2020, having played to more than 325,000 people over two and a half years.
Joe, who is from Essex, will be making his professional stage debut as the lead character, and it’s been a long time coming, “It’s nearly two years now since I was cast,” says Joe, “and I was originally supposed to start in April of last year, but we all know why that didn’t happen! It’s been tough knowing that you’ve been cast in this brilliant production but not being able to say anything.”
Joe was in his late teens when he took up acting, but it wasn’t until later, when he was working in a school that he decided to apply for drama school, “I felt really lucky to get in, but I felt even luckier to be cast in something like this so early in my career, I think that’s what made the delay even harder.”
The role of Leonard Vole had been at the back of Joe’s mind for some time, “my former housemate, who’s not really into theatre, went to see Witness for the Prosecution when it first opened and he loved it, in fact he went back to see it another twice, taking all his family with him. He told me after the first time that the role of Leonard would be perfect for me.”
“He knows I’m a bit of a cheeky chappie, and recognised that side of Leonard, so when the audition came through I couldn’t believe it.”
Despite having an avid fan of the show on hand, Joe didn’t want too much advice from his friend, “he gave me a few pointers for the audition,” laughs Joe, “but we both knew I needed to do my own thing, and to find a way to make the part my own, so he didn’t give too much away!”
With an almost eighteen month delay, Joe has had plenty of time to get to grips with script, “things have been ruminating subconsciously for sure,” says Joe, “but there was also the danger of over thinking it, if anything the delay as helped me hit the ground running from the very first day of rehearsals, and with such an experienced cast around me, that’s been a huge benefit.”
Joe is somewhat in awe of his fellow cast mates, “we’re really getting into the nuts and bolts of it now, which is really exciting, but even on the first day of rehearsals everyone was incredible, I think like me, they’d been sitting on this for a while, and everyone came in with all this energy bottled up ready to explode.”
“I learn from these people every day, most of them have been doing it longer than me so I literally just stare at them and just soak everything in. Every choice they make. Everything they do, how they prepare themselves. They’re so professional.”
Even for an experienced actor, Leonard Vole would be a challenging character to play, “what Agatha Christie is so brilliant at,” explains Joe, “is that for everything she gives the audience, she takes something away, that’s what keeps the mystery so compelling. Her writing is so precise and clever, it’s really incredible.”
“But that also means as an actor you need to be really on the ball, because at any given moment you need to be thinking ‘how much does the audience know?’ and ‘what do the other characters know at this point?’ if you get that wrong, you’re in danger of losing the momentum.”
Joe is keen to talk about his favourite part of Witness for the Prosecution but is careful not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, “I think what we can say is that there is a huge reveal, and that is my favourite part. I think when I read it for the first time my jaw dropped, I could not believe it.”
“It plays on the expectations of your expectations, and it works on so many levels. It is a real humdinger. I don’t know how many people who come to see it can guess what’s going to happen, but I certainly didn’t.”
London’s County Hall has been the home of this production since it first opened, and Joe is already a fan of the building, “as a venue for this show, it could not be more perfect, and I think part of the appeal is the space, I think it’s so immersive that you really do feel like you’re in a courtroom and that you’re part of the proceedings.”
“It’s a building steeped in such history, obviously a slightly different type of history than what we’re doing in there, but you can feel it in the room and there is magic in there, I think.”
Not performing in a traditional theatre space isn’t too daunting a prospect for Joe, “I think I just have to be conscious of every single person, especially with the nature of this show. It’s so immersive, I treat every single person in the audience as a cast member, in a way in which they will realise if they come and see it, you’ll know you are a part of it.”
As rehearsals begin to come to an end, Joe is thinking about opening night, “just to hear the audience again will be fantastic, we’ve all waited so long and we’ve missed it so badly, and I think as a country we need this again, you know that moment when you take your seat and then you’re transported somewhere else, it’s just magic.”
So will Joe’s former housemate be making a fourth trip to Witness for the Prosecution? “I should hope so,” laughs Joe, “a lot of my friends who don’t necessarily go to the theatre regularly are actually really excited to come and see the show, because I think it is very accessible. I genuinely think it’s got something for everybody, and even if you’ve never been to the theatre before, this is a great one to start with.
Witness for the Prosecution, starring Joe McNamara as Leonard Vole, reopens at County Hall on 14 September 2021, and is currently booking through to 20 March 2022.