Ruth Rendell, who died in 2015, was one of Britain’s most admired writers of crime fiction. Her novels featuring Inspector Wexford became a very popular television series but she wrote many other books as well, and now one of these, A Judgement In Stone, has been adapted for the stage. Interestingly, this enjoyable production is directed by actor Roy Marsden, famous of course for his TV role as another fictional detective, P D James’s Adam Dalgleish.
Rendell’s stories are distinguished by their dark, psychological approach, probing the human motives behind often horrendous crimes. A Judgement In Stone concerns a mass shooting. When the play opens it has already taken place and we’re at the scene of the crime: Lowfield Hall, the country home of the wealthy Coverdale family. A London detective, DS Vetch, conducts his investigation, aided by a local police officer. Over the course of the play they interview a series of characters, these scenes alternating with flashbacks tracing the events that led up to the murders.
The Coverdales, George and Jacqui, are a bright and breezy couple, exuding an effortless air of confidence and privilege. Their new housekeeper, Eunice, is almost the exact opposite: from a poor working class background, withdrawn and socially inept. But she seems hardworking and reliable; Jacqui considers her a marvellous find, though George isn’t so sure. Also very different to Eunice is the loud and colourful Joan, who with her husband runs the village post office. She was once a prostitute but is now a religious zealot. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship, based perhaps on a shared resentment of people who think they’re better than them. There’s also an aged cleaning lady and a young gardener who’s just out of prison.
Rendell’s original novel is more of a ‘why did it happen’ than a whodunit, revealing who was responsible for the crime early on. The stage version decides to keep us guessing, and Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s script has several carefully placed red herrings, with just about every character in the frame at some point. Inevitably, compressing the novel into a two hour play means that the characters lack some of the complexity of Rendell’s portrayals (Eunice’s background, for instance, is only thinly sketched). But they’re certainly a varied bunch, and this keeps us interested, while Rendell’s broad ideas about social class divisions and how they can affect people haven’t been lost in the transition from page to stage.
A fine cast adds to the pleasures of the production. Sophie Ward vividly conveys Eunice’s chronic social awkwardness, while Joan’s contrastingly powerful personality is amusingly brought to life in a lively performance by Deborah Grant. Chris Ellison, who played DCI Burnside in The Bill, is very convincing as the bluff, down-to-earth DS Vetch. And once you get over the initial shock of realizing that it’s Shirley Anne Field playing the elderly cleaner you’re able to enjoy her performance.
It all adds up to an entertaining evening in the company of some familiar and very talented actors.
*** Strong performances and a strange, unsettling tale
A Judgement In Stone continues at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday 11 November 2017.