After ten years of Agatha Christie adaptations, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company tackle their first Ruth Rendell mystery, A Judgement In Stone.

A curious choice, you might think, since the first sentence of the novel reveals the identity of the murderer and the apparent motive – but this stage adaptation, although it stays faithful to the flashback structure of the book, saves the ‘reveal’ until last.

A Judgement In Stone

Grand Opera House

Till Sat Oct 21

£13.50-£14.65

More details and book

The play opens with housekeeper Eunice Parchman nervously awaiting the arrival of two detectives to question her about the murder of her employers, George and Jaquie Coverdale, and their adult children Giles and Melinda.

Their former home is the lavish Lowfield Hall, in a beautifully detailed set by Julie Godfrey.

Famous faces

Heated: Antony Costa and Ben Nealon. Photograph: Mark Yeoman

The cast are all familiar faces from film and television, whose first appearances prompt ripples of “What’s she been in?” and “It’s him off The Bill!” throughout the audience.

A very aged-up Sophie Ward plays Eunice, Robert Duncan and Rosie Thompson the Coverdales and Chris Ellison (Him Off The Bill) DS Vetch.

Deborah Grant (Wasn’t she in Bergerac?) is woefully misdirected as Joan Smith, the bizarre offspring of two dated stereotypes – the religious maniac and the brassy ex-prostitute. Marsden doesn’t seem to know whether the character is scary or funny and Grant is worth more than this.

Social tensions

Robert Duncan has you in his sights
We are never convincingly persuaded that Joan and Eunice become friends – Eunice seems to turn into a different character in the second act.

Their actions, according to the programme notes, are the result of ‘social tensions’ and class resentment – something that is not obvious in the play.

The Coverdales, although upper class, seem perfectly likeable people who treat their employees well; taking on a gardener on parole and paying for a TV, driving lessons and glasses for Eunice.

Giles and Melinda do nothing worse than, respectively, meditate and have a boyfriend. SocAs such, we can have little sympathy for the flimsy motives/excuses of their killers.

The play is set in 1978, although I had to Google that when I got home. From the mish-mash of costume and furniture styles, it is nigh impossible to tell. The detectives look contemporary, Giles like a Nineties indie kid.

There is a dial telephone and an ancient, yellowing Radio Times. Melinda’s cassette recorder is an object of strange exotic wonder, despite these being in common use in the late Seventies.

Joan looks like she fell asleep in 1963 and woke up in the skip outside The Rover’s Return.

All of this is a great shame because the acting is absolutely solid. Antony Costa (didn’t he use to be in Blue?) and Shirley Anne Field (out of that film, you know with Olivier) are terribly underused and their brief appearances are amongst the highlights of the evening.

Strong cast

The Judgement In Stone cast

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and the scene changes are fluid. Everyone does what they can with the script and direction, which are stiffer than the poor Coverdales.

The Don Giovanni motif works well to a point, as a piece that brings the family together, and ultimately provides the means to denounce their killer/s, but more could have made of parallels between the two stories, and a chance was missed to use the Commendatore’s Don Giovanni a cenar teco m’invitasti in the murder scene.

The denouement when it comes is disappointing. We’re still not much clearer as to the motive, and why is Joan in a coma? There’s an overwhelming sense of Is that it? from the audience.

With a great cast and high production values, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company could do better. Hopefully in future they can emerge from the Agatha Christie timewarp and present us with something fresher.

Until then, there’s always old re-runs of Bergerac…