RUTH Rendell’s murder mystery A Judgement in Stone was published 40 years ago and the Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s anniversary stage adaptation is at Bath Theatre Royal until 25th November and then in Brighton, ending a lengthy tour.
The story of the awkward Eunice Parchman became one of the great crime writer’s most popular works. It all starts as Eunice’s employers, the Coverdales, have been shot, along with their children. The police have arrived to begin the painstaking business of finding a motive, and a viable suspect, for the grisly crime.
George and Jacqueline Coverdale, both on their second marriages, live in a substantial country home with their almost adult children. They have a lazy cleaner and ne’er do well gardener, and when the strange and dowdy Eunice answers the advertisement for a housekeeper, she seems like the answer to their prayers.
She’s sober, methodical, hard-working and undemanding. When she pals up with postmistress and born-again evangelist Joan Smith – a woman with a very dodgy past – George Coverdale is not pleased.
The family is preparing for George’s birthday celebrations, on 14th February. But instead of fun and laughter the evening ends with quadruple murder.
The set for the Roy Marsden production is solid and reassuring, reminiscent of The Play that Goes Wrong’s staging (but rather more substantial!).
Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard have retained the period feel of the original, with its careless cruelty dealt unthinkingly by the privileged Coverdales to their staff.
Sophie Ward gives a remarkable performance as the monosyllabic and ungainly Miss Parchman, as does Deborah Grant as the volatile Joan.
During its tour, the cast of A Judgement in Stone has changed, and the current Coverdales are Robert Duncan and Rosie Thomson, perfectly capturing the flirtatious silliness of middle-aged newlyweds caught in a bubble of their own importance.
Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon are the police, and in their roles it’s easy to see how crime fiction has changed in the intervening 40 years.
The red herrings are subtle, and the audience is left hesitant until the end.