EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW and Review: Witness For The Prosecution

SUZANNE BURLTON talks to Robert Duncan, star of this ‘beautifully executed production’ about his career in the theatre.

Agatha Christie Poirot Robert Duncan The Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Tab had an exclusive chance to chat to Witness to the Prosecution star, Robert Duncan most famous for playing Gus Hedges, the jargon-spouting boss, in the 1990s topical sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey.  He is also known for his role as Scumspawn, a demon, in the Radio 4 show Old Harry’s Game. He is currently playing Mr Mayhew in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution.

How is the tour going?

“I’ll shortly be entering into uncharted territory, because I’ve never done anything this long before… I’ve committed myself to do the whole tour, which is going to take me to December.”

When did you first decide you wanted to act?

I remember it perfectly. I was thirteen and I was watching ‘On The Waterfront’ with Marlon Brando, with my father.  I saw him cry and he couldn’t stop and I never saw my father cry and it was powerful stuff. I went straight upstairs, knelt down by my bed and said ‘If there’s a God up there, I want that power. I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to affect people by acting’.”

Does it get easier with time?

“Yeah, it does. Learning lines doesn’t get easier but it’s home now, it’s a place where you belong. I remember Jack Clemo, a Cornish writer, a visionary really, wrote something that I never forget. He said he had now found that small pinprick in the universe where he fitted in. And where to fit in was to be saved. In other words, that’s where you belong. Suddenly I thought ‘Oh yes, I think I have something to contribute here’.”

Do you prefer acting for stage or television?

“Acting is acting is acting. It’s all about telling the truth, even in this show. When you start listening it’s like listening afresh – it’s as much about listening as the acting… If you’re phoney, or you don’t engage truth as an actor, no matter how skilled you are, you will get blamed. But the audience always respond when you respond in the right way.”

You’re more known for comedy than serious roles like this. Do you prefer to do comedy?

“Comedy’s harder, but I don’t necessarily prefer it. You get much more out of it, there’s no doubt about that. And equally, if three people and a dog are there, people are scared about enjoying themselves, the process… when there’s a lot of people because there’s more likelihood of a few people helping the more nervous to be a part of it.”

How do you feel when the audience doesn’t seem to be reacting?

“Then the craft comes in. You become more aware of what you’re doing and then you go back on technique. You might think ‘Oh, they hate me’ but you just get on with it… But at the end of the day, a lot of it is about confidence – to tell the truth, to be liked. Because I want people to like me! People must own up to that.”

How do you get that confidence?

“I think it comes with age. Certain people get it faster, certain people are just supremely arrogant and supremely confident, but I’ve never been terribly good at that. I always think of my vulnerability as my strength – that ability to be smashed down and to rise up is very important. It’s the only thing that affects people.”

What’s the most difficult thing to do as an actor on tour?

“Keep it fresh and alive and the energy. It’s the most important thing any actor has: stamina, energy, fire. People wander on and there’s nothing going on in there and it’s horrible. I can’t bear to see it, can’t bear to be on stage with it.”

What are your future plans?

“I’d love to do more film. And some directing. You can count the good directors on your hand, though, every actor will say this, but in fifty years you can count the good ones, the teachers… So yes, directing.”


31st May to 5th June, 7.45pm and 2.30pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday. £10-27.

It was initially disappointed that the fabulously-named Honeysuckle Weeks has been replaced by Lisa Kay (although, as the very loud woman behind me told practically the entire theatre, Honeysuckle was only contracted to appear until Cambridge so it’s not really false advertising).  But, this was a beautifully executed production of a rather stereotypically Agatha Christie play set in a courtroom. It’s a comfortable one, not challenging to the inevitably elderly audience but intriguing enough to keep one’s attention. There were the usual twists and turns but, apart from a very disappointing deus ex machina ending, it rattled along nicely. In fact, my well-dressed companion summed it up nicely: “If you like Poirot, you’ll like this.”

My first impression was that the set was gorgeous. In fact, most technical elements were marvellous, except for an odd echo in the slightly disappointing sound effects. The acting, too, was on the whole rather good. There were the usual caricatures of elderly blustering lawyers, but they did not overdo any of it. Good-natured old-boy banter abounded and was delivered solidly, particularly the more amusing lines. 

However, one major problem was the accents. The wife of the accused (Lisa Kay) had a miscellaneous foreign accent and the housekeeper (Jennifer Wilson) had one of those comedy regional accents that make you want to die. In fact, I didn’t like the housekeeper at all – she was trying far too hard to get laughs. The wife, though, was intriguing underneath her robotic voice.

There was a lovely cameo by Simon Cole as the forensic expert which was very amusing. Robert Duncan too gave a sterling performance, and Caroline Oakes squeezed as much as she could out of her small part as Greta, although at times this was a little overdone. However, it was Denis Lill who really stood out as Sir Wilfred Robarts, QC. Apart from having the most gregarious eyebrows, he spoke beautifully and really expressed the alternate triumph and confusion of the lawyer as he attempted to riddle his way through the case. It was he who kept us truly gripped as the increasing evidence was presented to us.

This play does not have dramatic revelations as much as a slow creeping sense of doubt which drifts gently this way and that and ends up far from where you initially expected it to. The play itself is a little clumsy at times, but this is a beautifully executed production which really makes the most of the piece.