Richmond Theatre 23 – 28 January National tour until July 2017. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The Classic Thriller Company brings Ruth Rendell’s novel to the stage with great style. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have adapted the slow burning story of class resentment and shame and created a nostalgic but disturbing drama.
Set in a wood panelled manor house room, the play opens with two detectives discussing the unsolved murders of the Coverdale family on Valentine’s Day. They question Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper, who is still living in the house weeks later. In a fractured timeline, the build-up to the murders is shown, beginning with Eunice’s job interview. Awkward and reserved, Eunice’s (an unrecognisable Sophie Ward) initial bewilderment at the behaviour of the privileged Coverdales develops into simmering resentment as she befriends village outcast Joan (an equally transformed Deborah Grant). Throw in a doddery old cleaning lady, usurped by Eunice’s efficiency, and a recently paroled ladies’ man gardener, and a wonderful comedy of class confusion plays out in parallel to the murder mystery as the Coverdales waft through life with an unshakeable air of upper class self-assurance, never realising the impact of their good intentions.
The lightness of the comedy is slowly overshadowed by the sense of impending doom in the second act, but when the murder is finally shown, it is truly shocking – not because of the violence, but because it shows that murder can come from petty, niggling feuds, making it much more terrifying.
The script is tight and moves the plot along nicely, with transitions between past and present shown seamlessly and simply by subtle lighting change and the cast passing each other as they walk on and off stage. There is lots of humour, but the cast also do wonders with nuanced performances revealing the characters’ true feelings.
Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon as the detectives have the driest roles, basically acting as glorified narrators, but both actors bring warmth and interest to the stage – especially Lancel – oozing a sense of melancholy as he sits in the empty family home. Rosie Thompson is fantastic as Mrs Coverdale – channelling every upper class caricature possible. Deborah Grant chews the scenery as Joan Smith – portraying the unhinged woman as a childlike, but terrifying leopard print nightmare. Sophie Ward transforms into a dowdy, downtrodden spinster with incredible skill, managing to keep Eunice sympathetic and show her inner turmoil without the need for histrionics. A superb performance.
It makes me feel ancient to realise that this is now a period piece, with the awe and wonder shown by the characters at a cassette player that records bringing nostalgic chuckles from the audience, but the issues of class, entitlement, violence and disenfranchisement still loom large today, ensuring that the story still resonates with the audience.
A Judgement In Stone is a great novel, and this is a fine play. Catch it at a theatre near you on tour this year.