There’s nothing like a cliffhanger to build suspense, but “The Witness” proves you can have too much of a good thing. Many final moments in the 17 scenes in Vivienne Franzmann’s new play peak with the uncovering of threats and/or lies. Shocking consequences are promised, but they remain conveniently undiscussed, tilting the play toward contrivance. Simon Godwin’s patient, wholly convincing production makes the best possible case for the play, but “The Witness” gradually emerges as less than the sum of superbly played parts.
Franzmann signals her would-be-thriller-like use of withheld information from the start. Alex (a calm but subtly troubled Pippa Bennett-Warner), fresh from her first year at Cambridge U., returns home to her father Joseph (Danny Webb), a retired, war-zone photojournalist who saved her from genocide in Rwanda and, with his late wife, adopted her. It’s immediately obvious, however, that Alex is in denial about something. In the slow-burn opening scenes, all is clearly not well as father and daughter attempt to bond again after a year apart.
Joseph stumbles on the fact that, unbeknownst to him, Alex has dropped out of university. At first, she suggests this is about the difficulty of being a black girl at the almost exclusively white Cambridge. In fact, she’s having a crisis of identity brought on by her understanding — or lack thereof — of her past that Joseph made famous when he photographed her as he found her amid a pile of bodies, an image that went around the world.
Franzmann is aiming refreshingly high. This is a play not solely about the politics of racial identity; she’s also examining the morality and responsibilities of photojournalism. But despite the moment-to-moment tensions within the neatly written, ideally paced scenes, her overarching structure lets her down. While skeptical at all other times, Joseph’s extremely smart daughter seems not to consider the fact that Joseph is patently hiding the truth — a notion obvious to the audience.
A third party, Simon (David Ajala) arrives, and it would be unkind to reveal the truth of his character. His presence is questioned with climaxes around his motives, not least his contradictory evidence about the circumstances of the photograph that Joseph has presented. But questions raised about him are too conveniently dropped.
The fact that it is impossible to discuss him and the all-important photograph without ruining the tension reflects the fact that the play is far too reliant on its slowly revealed plot. For all the urgency of the issues — and the depth and sincerity of the acting — one starts to feel manipulated because key confrontations and discussions are missing.
In some ways, the play recalls “Death and the Maiden,” another three-hander pivoting around the uncovering of the truth about a horrifying political past. But Franzmann’s case is even more one-sided. Even with Danny Webb’s bravura turn as a wonderfully genial slob with a past passion for his work, Joseph is set up too blatantly as a liar. The final uncovering of his behavior is inevitable in all the wrong ways.