A Judgement in Stone (Richmond Theatre)

A Judgement in Stone (Richmond Theatre, until January 28th 2017)

After 10 glorious years of tackling the theatrical output of one of the greatest classic crime novelists, the Agatha Christie Theatre Company continues its new chapter under its new name with a thrilling offering by one of the more recent queens of crime fiction.

With the late Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone the Classic Thriller Theatre Company takes one of the writer’s finest novels and condenses the plot into a gripping couple of hours of dark, character-driven drama.

It’s not so much a whodunit as a “why-did-they-do-it?” and while the play steers clear of one of the 1977 book’s psychological keys that unlocked the mind of a murderer, it still explores Rendell’s themes of class difference, vengeance and obsession in keeping secrets. Using the novel’s opening sentence as the play’s closing line proves to be a chilling and effective twist.

Skirting over a somewhat ill-advised musical version of the book in the 1990s, this is the first stage production of A Judgement in Stone and we know it is in the best possible hands when we see that it has been adapted by Simon Brett (one of our greatest crime writers) and Antony Lampard, and directed by Roy Marsden, best known as an actor but who in more recent years has been directing for the stage with quality and vigour.

Many of the actors in this production are such familiar faces from the Agatha Christie company that it is almost like a reunion of old friends for the audience, but as the curtain rises on a grisly murder investigation it is clear that the get-together will be far from comfortable.

Two detectives (exceptionally pleasing performances from company newcomer Andrew Lancel and firm favourite Ben Nealon, who work well together as colleagues attempting to get to the bottom of the murder of a family of four a few weeks earlier) interview housekeeper Eunice Parchman, a wonderfully crafted performance of a mysterious and colourless woman with a chip on her shoulder by Sophie Ward.

The story unfolds with shifts from the interview to events occurring during the year leading up to the St Valentine’s Day massacre, portrayed effectively by Malcolm Rippeth’s subtle lighting design. We are introduced to the upper class and generally kind Coverdale family who employ Miss Parchman – all very nicely played by Mark Wynter, Rosie Thomson, Joshua Price and Jennifer Sims.

Along the way we also meet the outrageous snooping postmistress with unusual religious fervour (Deborah Grant letting it all hang out as Joan), the family’s former cleaner (played with a grey bitterness by Shirley Anne Field) and a part-time gardener with a dodgy past (a gritty performance from Antony Costa).

The triumph of this production is that director, cast and adapters manage to retain all the atmosphere of this taut psychological thriller without haemorrhaging any of its driving forces of character, buried secrets and hard motive.

A Judgement in Stone is on the road for 26 weeks but with only its second stop-off during the tour at Richmond, it already feels accomplished, polished and darkly engaging.

David Guest