Theatre Review - A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell, Opera House Manchester

PUBLISHED: 11:04 16 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:04 16 November 2017

Judgement in Stone 2017 Full Cast
Judgement in Stone CREDIT Geraint Lewis

Judgement in Stone 2017 Full Cast Judgement in Stone CREDIT Geraint Lewis 07831413452

Ruth Rendell’s murder mystery, A Judgement in Stone, is a classic tale in true British style

Antony Costa & Ben Nealon
Judgement in Stone Credit Mark YeomanAntony Costa & Ben Nealon Judgement in Stone Credit Mark Yeoman

I do love a good murder mystery and this one, published in 1977 and often said to be one of author Ruth Rendell’s best novels, has all the ingredients of the very best of British: an isolated country manor house, an embittered staff, a step-family with an odd teenaged son and a flighty daughter, and a decidedly creepy housekeeper. Really, the only thing missing is a butler.

This touring version of the novel, adapted for the stage by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, has a strong cast and there is not a weak link to be found.

Chris Ellison, Antony Costa & Ben Nealon
Judgement in Stone CREDIT Geraint LewisChris Ellison, Antony Costa & Ben Nealon Judgement in Stone CREDIT Geraint Lewis

The housekeeper, Mrs Parchment, is played by Sophie Ward and her accent and mannerisms are just brilliant. Meek and mild, easily led, proud at core, Mrs P is central to the plot and yet Ward manages to pitch her at just the right level of humble, ‘below stairs’ that she needs to be.

Chris Ellison is marvellous in his role as Detective Superindendent Vetch, sent from London to assist the local bobbies in solving the murder five weeks on. But then, he should be, having played the terrifying Frank Burnside in The Bill for so many years; I swear that man was the template for many TV coppers thereafter, and not a few real ones either!

The rest of the cast is no less strong, with centuries of theatre, television and radio success between them. Antony Costa, once of boy band Blue, takes the role of the hunky gardener, recently released from prison and with an unrequited yearning for the daughter of the house and is rather good at being both subservient and bitter at his lot in life. Shirley Ann Field, and her unmistakeable cheekbones; Robert Duncan; and Deborah Grant – it’s a strong line up.

The reason I make so much of the cast is that I found the play itself rather disappointing. In the hands of less effective actors, it would have been positively disastrous.

Much is made of this novel’s portrayal of the class system, where the upper middle class and the working class meet only in terms of employer and staff. In the late 70’s this was still a ‘thing’, but today when so many busy working families employ cleaners and gardeners and dog walkers, etc, the lines are a little more blurred. I am aware of many a very-much-not upper middle class family, with two working parents, who have paid ‘help’ to help them do everything that needs doing. Also, this is not a tale of rich versus poor, it’s a tale of pride, denial and eventual revenge for what were really unintended slights. The killer argues at the end that the deceased ‘deserved it, always interfering.’ Isn’t that the argument any murderer can put forward, regardless of class?

I think that today we are a little more sophisticated; trained and experienced in solving crime, analysing murder and murderous intent by the plethora of TV shows and movies on the subject, from real life crime to intricate plots and increasingly complicated presentations (just take this season’s Rellik!) It is maybe simply the passing of time that has made this play seem a little less that I had anticipated it would be.

To be honest, I got to the denouement and felt…not a lot really. No sense of shock, no sense of horror, no sense of surprise even. The culprit was clear from early on, the motive not.

Interestingly, I now have an urge to read the book, just to discover if the play had been simplified, to see if I can find the creeping sense of horror and then enlightenment this version simply doesn’t have.

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