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A Judgement in Stone review

Ruth Rendell’s 1970s novel is adapted for stage.

The Classic Thriller Company brings A Judgement in Stone to Leeds Grand Theatre this week as part of a national tour. Adapted from Ruth Rendell’s 1977 novel, this traditional murder mystery brims with a cast of familiar faces from stage and screen.

The story is a simple one: Housekeeper Eunice Parchman recalls the sequence of events leading up to the mass murder of the Coverdale family at Lowfield Hall. As Detective Vetch and Detective Challoner unveil the details of the crime, a trail of secrets and shame leads to the killer.

The Classic Thriller Company has produced a catalogue of mysteries over the years, following a tradition established by the very successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company.  The latest addition clocks in at two hours including interval, wasting no time telling its story through short scenes with workmanlike direction from Roy Marsden.

A Judgement in Stone has all the superficial flavour of an Agatha Christie potboiler, complete with a country estate, bickering old servants, class conflict and a sexy lady. All it lacks is a pipe-smoking old colonel and some casual racism. What sets Rendell’s play apart from a plummy Christie romp is an interesting theme. There is a prevailing fear of multimedia and invasive technology; the telephone is a key feature throughout the piece and a new-fangled cassette recorder gets more business than some of the supporting cast. There is also the constant tuning of a radio and at one point, a burbling TV plays the BBC News theme, announcing the retirement of Doctor Who’s latest assistant* – a nice flourish of period detail. It’s an interesting prologue to technology invading the sanctuary of the home, with a character ominously muttering: “There will be machines that can record video soon too.” The implication is that technology will overtake and hoodwink simple living folk, as indeed it does in this tale.

Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon in A Judgement in Stone. Image: Mark Yeoman

The play offers solid production values with a superbly detailed set, judiciously lit with a photorealistic ambience. Offering well-sourced props and an abundance of stage business, the late Seventies is suitably recaptured through retro telephones, floral coffee cups and boxes of Black Magic chocolate. Unfortunately, some costumes fall short; just one young lad wears bell-bottom jeans, when in truth all the men should be suited with flares and wide lapels, preferably cultivating sideburns the size of pork chops. It’s a little gripe, but for a production which heavily relies on its period to function, it’s a pity the evocation evaporates due to some anachronistic wardrobe.

The Classic Thriller Theatre Company consistently rewards audiences with fun and familiar casting choices. The ever-sprightly Mark Wynter is an absolute hoot as eccentric alpha George Coverdale, coupled with an equally buoyant Rosie Thomson as wife Jackie. Sophie Ward sympathetically sketches the withering Eunice Parchman with a waif-like awkwardness, in addition to some underlying comedy thanks to an Olive Oyl gait. Delivering plenty of disruptive energy to some stiff dialogue is Deborah Grant as Joan Smith – a delicious cocktail of Babs Windsor and Dolly Parton. Relative newcomer Joshua Price also brings some nicely nuanced side glances as a lovesick stepbrother.

As is the norm with traditional thrillers, many characters are underwritten as stock types, offering little more dimension than a Cluedo card. The most deprived are usually officials and policemen; Ben Nealon and Andrew Lancel work hard to tease out charisma from the Detectives’ thinly written dialogue and I can’t help thinking that Simon Brett and Antony Lampard could have enriched these characters with a little more texture in their stage adaptation. That said, the company overcome the limitations of the script and there are flashes of dry comedy to enjoy throughout the performance.

A Judgement in Stone is good old fashioned, straight up the theatre with a twist, mixed with a few chuckles along the way. The story is simple; the resolution rewarding. Professionally packaged and pleasantly paced, A Judgement in Stone won’t have you on the edge of your seat, but it will encourage you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

*If it’s 1978, this would be the lovely Mary Tamm.

Cast: Sophie Ward, Andrew Lancel, Ben Nealon, Mark Wynter, Rosie Thomson, Shirley Anne Field, Antony Costa, Joshua Price, Jennifer Sims, Deborah Grant. Director: Roy Marsden Writer: Ruth Rendell Theatre: Leeds Grand Theatre Duration: 120 minutes Dates: Mon 24th April – Sat 29th April 2017.

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