Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is set in 1978 in Lowfield Hall, the Coverdale family seat, writes Nancy Stevens.
Eunice, the recently-hired and socially inept housekeeper, hides a secret that will inexorably lead to a terrible tale of murder in cold blood – on Valentine’s Day. Ruth Rendell’s brilliant plot unravels a lifetime of deceit, despair and cover-ups which, when revealed, brings a shocking revelation almost as grisly as murder itself.
The star cast includes the usually stunning Sophie Ward as Eunice, who, for the role, dons a grey wig and dowdy shapeless clothing.
At times, her portrayal veers towards Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques with a touch of Frank Spencer’s voice, and it made for slightly uncomfortable viewing, but this only added realism.
I enjoyed Soldier Soldier’s Ben Nealon’s performance as DS Challoner, the wizened local police officer. Coronation Street and The Bill star Andrew Lancel is the hackneyed Detective Superintendent Vetch, summoned from London to assist DS Challoner on what is a very complex murder investigation.
Mark Wynter the benevolent Lord of the Manor, Lord Coverdale dotes on his wife Jacqueline, Rosie Thomson, who speaks with the cut-glass vowels of the upper classes as the archetypal lady-who-lunches.
Lady Coverdale is nothing but kindness personified towards Eunice, but unbeknown to her does not realise that the secret that Eunice is harbouring will have far-reaching ramifications on all of their lives.
Bergerac star Deborah Grant is Joan Smith, the former prostitute now evangelical postmistress, with a penchant for reading the village mail, strikes up an unlikely alliance with Eunice, much to the Coverdale’s horror.
Smith’s character was reminiscent of Sybil Fawlty and Peggy Mitchell, and Grant displays some excellent comic timing.
Veteran actress Shirley Anne Field is Eva Baalham, the Coverdale’s usurped cleaner, but this is little more than a cameo for an actress who once starred alongside Laurence Olivier.
Blue star, Antony Costa plays the lovelorn ex-con gardener who would seem to be the most obvious suspect.
Costa sports a consistent West Country accent for the most part, and I think in time he will grow as an actor.
The play involves a series of flashbacks and is an interesting juxtaposition of just how defined the class system was in Seventies Britain.
The ‘Haves’ – The Coverdales – and the ‘Have-nots’, Eunice, Joan, Eva and Roger, and the underlying resentment that this caused, leads ultimately to the demise of the some of the central characters.
A Judgement in Stone published in 1977 is loved for its brilliant rendering of character, plot and motive, and is undoubtedly Rendell at her thrilling best.
A Judgement in Stone is on at Milton Keynes Theatre until 29 July.
Read Nancy Stevens’ Show Stoppers column in Celebrate:MK lifestyle magazine every month and listen to her award-winning radio show Stevens on Sunday on Secklow Sounds 105.5fm from 6-8pm.