REVIEW A Judgement in Stone, New Alex Theatre

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From the production company that brought the works of Agatha Christie to stage, comes a brand new crime story, this time from the pen of Ruth Rendell…

What isn’t there to love about a country house crime? A wealthy family shot dead on Valentine’s Day, a housekeeper under suspicion, and a dogged detective determined to put the pieces together — these irresistible components all make up the mystery that unfolds over this theatrical adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s classic novel, A Judgement in Stone.

Told out of sequence, the story follows the investigation into the grisly events of one night at Coverdale House, while the events leading up to the crime are related through flashbacks.

Eunice Parchman is the new housekeeper at the Coverdale family home; a woman of few words, her accent and overall demeanour could not be more different than those of the family she serves; patriarch George, his second wife Jacqueline, and painfully posh stepsiblings Giles and Melinda.

Ms Parchman likes to keep to herself, but soon finds herself being drawn into the Coverdales’ lives. And when she strikes up a friendship with the local postmistress, a born-again Christian with a sketchy past, tensions in the household begin to bubble over.

Effects are kept to a minimum; flashbacks begin simply once the detectives have left the stage and the victims come back to life, after a fashion, to re-enact their final days.

As Ms Parchman, Sophie Ward is mostly edges. Limited to one-word responses for much of the play, she relies on her body language to tell the story; all hunched shoulders and busy hands, with keen eyes that don’t miss a thing. Andrew Lancel is appropriately brusque as Detective Superintendent Vetch, while Mark Wynter and Rosie Thomson perfectly embody the upper-middle class Coverdales, in turns imperious and benign.

The most recognisable name on the bill is Antony Costa, formerly of boyband Blue, as gardener and ne’er-do-well Rodger Meadows — and his performance begs the question ‘why did they bother?’ All of his scenes play out like an audition where he’s being asked to interpret the character through a wildly varied set of accents; one moment Devon, the next Yorkshire. Of course, anybody with a passing knowledge of CSI or Law & Order knows that a big-name guest star usually means their character knows more about the crime than they’re letting on… No spoilers here though.

The show is stolen, though, by Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, the dirty-laughed fallen woman fond of quoting scripture and breaking into song. It is during her few scenes with Ms Parchman that the dour housekeeper comes alive, and it makes the events that follow all the more shocking.

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