A Judgement in Stone at the King’s Theatre is the stage adaptation by The Classic Thriller Theatre Company (itself an off-shoot into other writers’ work of the highly successful The Agatha Christie Theatre Company). Both companies have two things in common – they use source material from classic thriller writers and very experienced actors to play the roles.
A Judgement in Stone is considered by many to be one of Ruth Rendell’s best works, and this stage play is set in 1978 - keeping in time period with the book from 1977, and like all great murder stories there is a simple story at its core. Here, housekeeper Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward) has been hired by a wealthy couple – Jacqueline Coverdale (Rosie Thomson) and George Coverdale (Mark Wynter) who it appears are kind and considerate employers. Eunice, however, hides some secrets in her past that lead to the murder of not only her employers but also their children – Melinda (Jennifer Sims) and Giles (Joshua Price). Add in some very solid character performances from Andrew Lancel (DC Vetch), Ben Nealon (DS Challoner), Shirley Anne Field (Eva Baalham), Deborah Grant (Joan Smith) and Antony Costa (Rodger Meadows), and everything looks set on paper for another classic thriller show from this company. Unfortunately, the show itself is another mystery, as something seems to have gone wrong in translation from book to play and despite the best efforts of a strong cast everything is let down by a fairly mundane script that just fails to pull us as an audience into the story and create any tension, and plot holes and loose ends everywhere that do not add up.
I have to admit that I have not read the original book, but even a quick read of a synopsis of it shows one crucial element of housekeeper Eunice Parchman to be missing, and the other driving secret of hers (which becomes obvious to the audience fairly early on) is treated almost as a minor issue with little understanding of its life-long effects on Eunice. All of this is a shame as Sophie Ward is excellent in this role and gives us all some feeling of the introversion and fragility of the character.
Most of the first act here is rather slowly establishing who everyone is and their relationships to one another as well as laying down some possible motives and culprits for the murder of a family of four on St Valentine’s Day. One character though – reformed born-again Christian Joan Smith (Deborah Grant) loudly announcing her old sinful ways and lifestyle as well as “The Lord’s” judgement upon everyone is so over the top and loud that she cuts through the up to now quiet domesticity of events like a chainsaw, and it takes the whole production into almost comedy farce at times. Also odd is why this reformed character still wants to go around dressing in the style of her older and now renounced self. This change of pace is absolutely not the fault of Deborah Grant who is simply playing the role as written and directed. This oddity in characters and roles is a running theme throughout this production, and excellent as Mark Wynter and Rosie Thomson are in their respective roles, there is little in the story to indicate any real relationship between the two of them. Shirley Anne Field as cleaner Eva is a pleasure to watch here, but the role seems to be far too one dimensional (like the other characters) and too brief to make the best use of her huge talents as an actress.
It’s always difficult to review a thriller production without giving away the plot or story line, but I am giving nothing away here by giving a few oddities out – 999 calls that don’t seem to be recorded for time, phone lines that investigating officers note are still dead when the line has actually been cut inside the house, everyone’s amazement at the new technical marvel of a portable cassette player when in fact they had been around in mass market volume for a few years by 1978, and double barrelled shotguns that seem to have the recoil and damage capabilities of a small airgun…lots of puzzles, and a mystery why some of these things have not been caught at an earlier production level. Despite these things (and some more not mentioned), some nice touches too such as the radio announcement coming from the old BBC Pebble Mill studios.
The biggest mystery of all though is the very swift change in character by Eunice leading immediately up to the final events. The speed of those final events seems rushed too, almost like too much time had been spent establishing the characters earlier on and we were just running out of time.
Ruth Rendell fans (and there are many) will probably (I hope) still enjoy this production, but this just never felt like a “Thriller” at any point to me.
Review by Tom King