Review: A Judgement in Stone, Buxton Opera House

 

Ruth Rendell’s highly-regarded novel begins with a simple sentence. The murderer is named and a motive is given. The 1977 novel is a ‘why-done-it’. The decision to turn this stage adaptation into a ‘whodunnit’ changes the character and balance of the story. From the outset we know the terrible shooting of a family of four has happened – but who could be responsible?

Apart from being a psychological drama – rather than a thriller – Rendell’s novel is something of an examination of English class structures. Much has happened since 1977, of course. The Thatcher and Blair governments each, in their own way, restructured communities and so the setting for A Judgement in Stone seems almost quaint now.

Everything takes place in a large country house – presumably in the south of England. We see just one well-appointed room – the set and design is excellent. Mr and Mrs Coverdale live there. Middle-class professionals, to some in the village they are ‘know-it-alls’, ‘do-gooders’. For each it is a second marriage and both brought a child to the family. Jacqueline Coverdale (Rosie Thomson) is younger than her husband – but some gossipers say she is ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. Her son, Giles (Joshua Price), is a very earnest young man – spending all his time reading – and infatuated with his step-sister Melinda (Jennifer Sims) who is at university and at home for weekends.

They employ a range of help to manage the house – a gardener, Rodger, who has a criminal record and was at school with Melinda. There is a part-time cleaner, Eva (Shirley Anne Field), and a live-in servant, Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward). We also meet the village postmistress – a reformed prostitute, now religious fundamentalist – Joan (Deborah Grant). Joan believes the Coverdale’s to be adulterers and bound for hell and that she has a duty to open the post so as to know about the sinfulness that surrounds her. She befriends Eunice and is a doubtful influence.

When the play begins it is five weeks since the murder and the local police, represented by DS Challoner (Ben Nealon) have made no headway. Detective Superintendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) has been sent from London to move the case to a conclusion.

The play is constructed so that we see both the interviews and investigations carried out by the police and also the unfolding of events around the family and the staff leading up to the terrible slaughter on Valentine’s Day – which is also George Coverdale’s (Mark Wynter) birthday. This movement from the ‘present’ to the ‘past’ is handled smoothly and we are never in doubt about where we are chronologically.

Judgement in Stone is a Bill Kenwright production; apart from a team of experienced actors, the adaptation is the work of Simon Brett and Antony Lampard and the direction is by Roy Marsden. All-in-all a group that know their trade and this genre especially – you are in safe hands.

Keith Savage