FringeReview UK 2017
Adapted by Simon Brett and Antony Lampard, and directed by Roy Marsden of P. D. James Adam Dalgliesh fame. There’s a grand hall of a single set by Julie Godfrey, lit through the year’s changes by Malcolm Rippeth. Dan Samson’s sound has much to do here, relaying Mozart, on big speakers from an off-stage drawing room and a tinny cassette recorder, crucial theatrically.
It’s a shrewd idea for Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company to switch from Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell. So one of her greatest, A Judgement in Stone from 1977 arrives at Theatre Royal, Brighton after a year-long tour.
Shrewd idea, and there’s some shrewd theatrical craft here too. Adapted by Simon Brett no less, and Antony Lampard, directed by Roy Marsden of P. D. James detective Adam Dalgliesh fame, it boasts impeccable pedigree. There’s a splendid grand hall of a single set by Julie Godfrey for a start, lit through the year’s changes by Malcolm Rippeth. Dan Samson’s sound has much to do here, relaying Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikowsky on big speakers from an off-stage drawing room and a tinny cassette recorder, crucial theatrically. In fact we’re presented with a gallimaufry of recorded data.
The first killer line of the novel’s rightly transposed to the end. Presented with a constant oscillation of two time-sequences, we start with detectives and a sealed-off drawing room. Sophie Ward’s hapless Eunice Parchman gives an account of her nine months as housekeeper, though it’s not always through her eyes. This alternates back to scenes – also running chronologically – of the lengthy investigation.
Rendell has much to say about class collision, and terrible misunderstandings. The host of helps – the ageing sharp Eva Baalham, replaced by the swifter Parchman, is a study in displacement and Shirley Anne Field carries everything in a look. Gardener with previous Rodger Meadows (Antony Costa) still carries a torch for the daughter of the house Melinda, at university.
Deborah Grant, who’s crashed and in a coma by the play’s beginning is something else: a happy-clappy church-going ex-prostitute still in working-girl uniform. Unhinged self-appointed guardian of morals she steams open the village’s correspondence, falling in judgement on them. Her wild antics are a highlight, and a Bacchic knees-up with Ward’s Eunice at the close of Act One and much later is something to behold. Except that the rationale doubtless explained by Rendell doesn’t emerge here.
The trouble is her new pal Eunice can’t read, and is mortified anyone should find out. Eunice even fakes her own reference in a phone call (it seems she can read numbers). Ward’s strangulated servility is a curious thing: on one level she exudes crushed pride. On another she’s furnished with wild outbursts against the would-be-helpful Melinda who guesses her secret just as Eunice overhears hers. Rendell might explain this; this dramatization doesn’t.
We’re introduced to the complacent Coverdales. Robert Duncan’s George harrumphs his role with paterfamilias noises, excellent at catching the nuances of cultural assumptions, faux-liberal attitudes and pompous double-standards. Rosie Thomson his wife Jacqueline enjoys real turns as someone terribly well meaning in their condescension, a jammy Jerusalem type. They are types too, with no depth, but beautifully realised to excruciating lengths. The way Jacqueline Coverdale brushes aside the need for written references and her blind complacency is highly watchable.
Of the children Pamela Dwyer as Melinda has more to do than Joshua Price’s Giles Mont (Jacqueline’s son by her first marriage), a moody slightly Asperger’s-type young man with a fixation on languages and the Tibetan book of the Dead with a school theft of guns no-one’s proved. Price does what he can with puppy-sulks and occasional geniality. His greatest moment comes trying to tell his step-sister he’s in love with her.
He’s not the only one. Apart from step-brother, and gardener, there’s an off-stage college lover who might have made Melinda pregnant, and her own father who shows remarkable sang-froid, not the actions of a man who enjoys his daughter trailing her legs all over him. This is one of those moments, of almost incestuous intensity that the novel might chase up, but leaves us dangling.
Dwyer’s good as the quickly sympathetic but equally self-absorbed young woman heedless of even comforting Meadows with a tithe of their old friendship. Costa’s effective as another villager displaced whose anger boils over with the policemen. Rendell’s drawing-out of class assumptions in these details is masterly, though one can’t help feeling that in this otherwise solid and neatly orchestrated dramatization, threads have been snagged or dropped out.
The title for instance refers to Mozart’s Don Giovanni opera playing at the fatal moment when the family are absorbed. There’s several references to Mozart throughout, and to other operas. The Stone Guest is the slain Commander’s statue coming for his killer and daughter-seducer Don Juan, which no-one here is told. Even should we be, there’s no true analogue to this; in fact it’s not explained. Another dangle: why is it that Grant’s Joan Smith crashes in perfect conditions? Are she and her friend drunk? It’s as if at the last minute pieces from the jigsaw have been snatched back.
These are drawn together by DS Vetch, gnarled London-hailing Scotland Yard veteran in Chris Ellison’s hardboiled knuckle of a performance sent in as it looks over the heads of the locals. He’s shrewd enough to know Detective Sergeant Challoner is more than an imposed sidekick, and Ben Nealon’s quickly sympathetic, meticulous local wins Vetch’s respect. It’s Challoner who always accepts tea and cakes from Miss Parchman. Vetch seems to think everything’s poisoned, including marriage.
This should be a cracking realization, and perhaps the book’s satisfying in all the dangles of motivation left blowing in the wind at the play’s end. The problem’s the story itself which despite iconic thriller status might not be realisable. There’s previous in the novel never mentioned here that’s crucial background, but would be difficult to bring off. TV dramas point up details the sweep of theatre necessarily leaves out and doubtless this work wells in that medium (I’ve not seen either version, though Rendell approved the latter). But emotional punch is lost.
It’s solidly paced, solidly acted throughout too, with no weak links. There’s strong realizations from Duncan and Thomson, with Field quietly sparkling. Grant and Ward produce stand-out energy with performances only flawed by what their characters are supposed to do. Somewhere between Rendell, Brett and Lampard lies a slightly lost opportunity, but a few key additions would make this explicable without ruining the plot.
Definitely worth seeing if you don’t know the story, and want to experience this live. It’s such a relief to enjoy Rendell dramatized from this company, after so much Christie, that we should hail Rendell and perhaps P. D. James adaptations, as thrillers with depth with much to say socially about the damaged and easily-damned, brooding on injustices.