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What We're Watching - A Judgement in Stone

After a decade producing stage versions of thrillers by the Queen of Crime The Agatha Christie Theatre Company has had a revamp to become The Classic Thriller Company. One cannot quibble with the choice of the late Ruth Rendell as a ‘classic’ thriller writer. She was an author capable of producing straightforward ‘whodunnits’ and complex psychological thrillers. A Judgement in Stone, possibly her finest work, combines the two.

Hopes are high for the stage adaptation; after all Simon Brett has a number of thrillers to his name and Antony Lampard has previously brought works by Agatha Christie to the stage. The novel concentrates on the reasons for the murder rather than finding the criminal whose identity is revealed in a summary that opens the book. The adaptation is not so daring – it opens after the murders have taken place and works backwards through the events but takes the conventional approach of keeping the identity of the murderer under wraps for as long as possible. It is a valid method but places limitations on the actor playing the murderer who is denied the chance to draw out the dark nature of the character. The adaptation misses a key element of the novel – Rendell was essentially writing a tragedy. The motive for the murders is trivial and rooted in a sense of shame experienced by a character whose primitive moral code belongs to the Stone Age, yet we do not get the terror experienced by decent people encountering something that is beyond their comprehension.

In 1978 a pair of police officers investigate the circumstances that led to an upper-class family of four –parents and children- being shot to death and to a car accident that left Joan Smith (Deborah Grant) the local postmistress in a coma. They interview the ex-con gardener (Anthony Costa) and the housekeeper Eunice Parchman (an almost unrecognisable Sophie Ward) who was friends with the comatose postmistress and try to determine what happened.

Director Roy Marsden stages the play as a straightforward police procedural rather than a psychological thriller. Although clues are available for the audience their psychological significance is glossed over so that the revelation of the motive is not as emotionally crushing as should be the case. Marsden shies away from any hint of darkness. Deborah Grant’s former prostitute turned self-righteous Born Again Christian is played broadly for laughs and, without at least a hint of unhinged zealotry that might prompt murder, it is hard to take the character seriously as a suspect.

This is a story in which atmosphere and a strong sense of time and place are essential. A key plot point is a missing cassette tape recorder which was the height of sophistication in 1978 but apart from Deborah Grant’s boots there is nothing in the play that would not fit into the present day. Although the sluggish pace quickens in the Second Act there is never a gathering of momentum; a feeling that events are getting out of control and heading towards a crisis.

A Judgement in Stone is a respectful adaptation of a very fine book but hardly a classic.

Review by Dave Cunningham, Copied without Permission from

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