A Judgement in Stone

Coventry Belgrade B1 (Main House).


A Judgement in Stone (1977) is a classic whodunit, whose stage adaptation for The Classic Thriller (formerly Agatha Christie) Theatre Company, by the formidably experienced duo of Simon Brett and Antony Lampard, shows the late Ruth Rendell’s mysteries (think of George Baker’s memorable long-run as the west country Chief Inspector Wexford) to be easily up there with Miss Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Or with Susan Hill’s A Woman in Black, an unexpected smash-hit, a production which, like the bare-all Equus, the aching My Boy Jack or his recent RNT (Tom Stoppard) Rosencrantz, proved ‘young’ (now in his upper 20s) Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter acting chutzpah.

By the end of this intriguing 1970s-era Rendell potpourri (though the deaths actually mount up all in one), you sense you’ve known – guessed - all along who dunnitt: But why? What we lack, and search for haphazardly like the earnest and worthy fuzz themselves, is the motive; and when it surfaces, it is subtle, instinctive, resentful but deep-seated. And equally unexpected: a minor transgression, nervous act of concealment and only faintly ominous spat that unite to unleash this needless Expressionistic nightmare.

What especially inspired me in an entertainment evincing an unusually laid-back, and hence all the more effective, unfolding, culminating in a marvellously well-calibrated dénouement, is that its Director is Roy Marsden.

I only really ‘discovered’ Marsden for myself a decade ago, when a friend who was also a fan when it was first televised played me, on DVD, some of his most famous (and now most enjoyably corny and dated) cold war espionage TV series, The Sandbaggers. I was hooked.

Not being a P. D. James reader either, or much of a television addict in the 1980s, I missed Marsden as Inspector Dalgliesh in more than a dozen seasons’ series, initiated by Anglia TV. If anyone is qualified to direct Miss Marple­ or Midsomer Murders like stage adaptations, he is.

His obvious calibre reaches back further than all that. Marsden, who seems to have spent his childhood circling London’s once atmospheric Docklands, his birth name (Roy Mould) perhaps suggesting his origins, started directing, he tells us, at 15: the play was in Yiddish, which would have been understood by much of East London in the mid-Fifties.

On the other hand, he starred as old-school form master Mr. Chips – a rival for Peter O’Toole or Robert Donat – in (along with The Browning Version) one of the most frequently revived schoolboy stories since Tom Brown’s Schooldays. As for his quite staggering versatility, Marsden has shaped and directed loads of productions: consider his handling of Lionel Bart’s second most famous Musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be; or as an actor, his brief, threatening role as Danny Driscoll, (David Jason and Del Boy’s ‘nemesis’) in Only Fools and Horses.

Sophie Ward

Sophie Ward as housekeeper Eunice 

Marsden’s preference was from the start for out-of-the-way, often cutting-edge serious and modern drama, at which – as the critics have it - he invariably excels.  Perhaps he should revert to the RSC - where he acted at Stratford and the Aldwych in Peter Hall’s spanking new company in the early and mid-Sixties - to direct Cymbeline or The Comedy of Errors  or Measure for Measure – or he might prefer The Seagull, The Master Builder or Waiting for Godot. On his showing at the Belgrade in A Judgement of Stone, he would certainly merit any major company’s attention as a Director, a very insightful one too.

The tidiness and tightness of this touring production, the slickness of the scene changeovers (one or a pair of characters entering before the previous scene has left the stage), the – with key characters anyway - reliability of the characterisation, the shrewd management of the timing of every forward judder or nudging of the plot, and the action, all betray a masterly hand.

The play – I’m not sure about the book – keeps moving by a well-worn yet perfectly effective theatrical device: by interspersing the post-murder investigation (two detectives playing off each other in classic Lewis and Hathaway fashion) with the build up to the four-person slaying itself.

When we see Sophie Ward’s stupendously well-characterised, played ‘Housekeeper’ (although all she seems to do is dust), Eunice Parchmen, at the start (as we shall again in a final tableau at the end) seated ominously alone, in a curiously awkward, subdued atmosphere - light just fingering, then creeping, in due course bursting through a huge rear window (Julie Godfrey’s utterly apt, oak-panelled single period set always ideally lit, high or low or in explosive bursts, by Malcolm Rippeth: English Touring Theatre, Paines Plough, Shakespeare’s Globe, Chichester) - somehow the red coat – to me an eerie echo of the horrific Sutherland –Christie Don’t Look Now – it already tells us all; either Mrs. Parchmen is one of those doomed to cop it; or she, so often, artfully and penetratingly interviewed, like Kim Philby facing up to James Skardon, is going to prove the villain.

Chris Ellison’s Detective Superintendent and Ben Nealon’s DS Challoner (a surprising upgrade: one would more likely expect a DS and DC, or DCI and DS in most cases; doubtless this was big news in the local, even national papers – one wheeze, or trick, the scriptwriters and production omit to capitalise upon) play the retrospect scenes extremely capably: indeed some of their cross-questioning engagements, impressively quick-fire, help the pace of the inquisition no end.

But Ward’s Parchmen – that curious, surely suspiciously demure, slippered shuffle maintained throughout, her answers – are they evasive or not? Why was she really dismissed from her old job in Wimbledon? - they all seem plausible, bar the odd misunderstanding or (more likely) dodging the question or a specific detail – is a small masterpiece of underplaying.

A youthful 52, Ward makes Parchmen exactly that – a kind of wrinkled-before-her-time piece of crinkly blank paper, a sort of spooky escapee from the Valley of the Kings or some Victorian tomb-robbers’ find. Eunice Parchmen (‘why Eunice?’ queries the murdered girl, whose blabbing leads to the entire hecatomb of a killing spree) at least – till the close - knows her mind and keeps her own counsel.

Her giggly Girl-comic magazine, very much of the period, escapades with her slightly sickly friend, Deborah Grant’s, glamorously – indeed showily - costumed, and deliberately neutrally named - given her part in the final sparagmos - Joan Smith (Costume Supervisor: Trish Wilkinson, Head of Wardrobe and Wigs - good ones, or at least good powdering, for Ward and Grant, the overall Designer or selecter possibly being Godfrey) pose a question and a potential threat. What exactly is going on? Are they going to imitate – or rather anticipate - the two New Zealand teenage girls, who equally go on a killing spree?

shirley Anne Field

Shirley Anne Field 

Four, all one family, the Coverdales, are killed here in an outburst of only just premeditated vengeful madness (that is one of the questions that lurks at the end, and will generate a kind of ‘Let him have it’- type trial).

I once, as a novice aide to a gifted defending barrister, witnessed details of a similar (five-persons, by three assailants) murder in the rural Southern Counties. They were not a pretty sight. In A Judgement in Stone, the doomed quartet is headed by Robert Duncan as the father, George, whose insistence on knowing everything and frankly naïve, ill-judged meddling (his children are both grown up) actually initiates the final tragedy.

Duncan, a pleasure to watch and here if (rightly?) a fraction samey as a character, is expressive, enjoys life, blusters well, and defines his paterfamilias character not badly (though I feel Marsden could have toyed with them more, so as subtly or even glaringly to differentiate – by individual work with each character, and his usual clutch of good ideas - the family’s individual foibles, by importing more invention to each). He is the first to take the gunshot in the chest. Rosie Tomson as the wife, Jacqueline, has lots of punch, holds the stage notably well, and is not unfiery, though perhaps needs even more quirkiness to give the character an additional lift. She particularly shines in scenes with unmarried (but relievedly not pregnant) daughter Melinda (Pamela Dwyer).

Giles, the mother’s - though not the husband’s - son (Joshua Price) – his boozy father long ago signed off on any responsibility and took off to Bristol, so there should be some background trauma here – speaks notably well, but has a rather brutally truncated role – just as does the real maid, Eva, considerately and recessively played by legend Shirley Anne Field, discovered by the now (unbelievably) octogenarian Vanessa Redgrave’s first husband, Tony Richardson, who pitched her opposite Olivier in The Entertainer, followed soon by the landmark, memorable kitchen sink movie version of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It seems a curious casting for such a major figure, unless she is understudying the lead (which she could well assay). Here she seems to be added to provide another seemingly possible candidate for the killer. Yet the script virtually ignores this potential, or any character development. She proves a cipher - merely another duster.

A nice performance was turned in by Antony Costa, former founder member of the chart-topping group Blue, and subsequently a solo recording artist. As the youngish gardener who denies initially being present that day (on the premises, perhaps even briefly in the house, on a clandestine liaison – with the girl?) Rodger Meadows, an amusingly horticultural name, seems to the zealous coppers a dead ringer for the murderer, albeit without any traceable motive.

Costa is agreeably forthright, His forte appears, no surprise, to be Musicals, but I thought he showed a lot of acumen, perhaps nicely directed and advised by Marsden. He would have fitted well in one of those Agatha Christie films (Murder on the Orient Express, or Evil Under the Sun). He has character and punch and flair. Clearly straight theatre will never be closed to him: casting directors (not credited here) would do well to notice him.

anthony costa

Blue star Antony Costa as gardener Rodger 

This is the sort of show which could easily have limped; and manifestly did not. That it does not do so – at any point, I would assert – is down to Marsden’s direction, to Lampard and Brett’s well-devised, always to the point script, to Sophie Ward’s incredibly absorbing performance as Eunice, to polished cast teamwork and interplay, and to verging-on-brilliant directorial timing throughout (including some spectacular – and brave - silences as the truth is final winkled out).

I should be applauding properly Julie Godfrey’s set: for its artistic consistency, both in materials (medium oak, or ceramics), and in its deploying the same quasi-ecclesiastical, or at least fashionable, arched detail (on doorways, bookcase, fire grate, and so on). There are lots of nice touches –although a pair of nondescript pictures at rear stage right looks footling: what on earth was their purpose? Yet this would make a superb TV set as well: with some dotted bric-à-brac, all aptly selected (Props Supervisor Claire Auvache), it is a treat, and somehow contrives to exude atmosphere. Did Dan Samson’s Soundtrack add anything? Yes, from a highly interesting, tense, though not jarring, bit of musical modernism to grope around the seated Eunice at the very outset, through to Mozart, Tchaikovsky and  what else, on the family radio or radiogramme or whatever (CDs had not yet arrived, but cassettes, despite Eunice’s real or feigned ignorance of them (a missing then rediscovered cassette finally gives the game away; one had kind of guessed it would; though the high-ranking Police seemed pretty ponderous at searching the obvious places).

We didn’t need the set to change. Indeed, its very staticness added something: a feeling of impotence, perhaps; or of Sickert-like ennui, of tedium. Had it swung using the Belgrade’s box of tricks and technical department, then, given that Vetch and Challoner’s police discussions and (obviously) examinations must all take place at the murder house – it could only have been a sickening opening up of the murder scene.

OK, so Seneca would have done it, and relished it. The Greeks – Sophocles, Aeschylus – would have used the ekkuklema – the sort of wheeled out trolley on which Clytemnaestra’s and Aegisthus’ bodies, gore included, or Jocasta and Haemon and Antigone’s hanged or buried live remains, could be revealed to all. Sophocles’ Oedipus, of course, does emerge, eyeless for the climax and blind throughout the final play of what is treated as a trilogy.

Poirot or Maigret would simply have told us about it, omitting nary a detail. Probably here such a nasty unveiling – unless the (never seen) withdrawing room itself held some crucial clue - would have seemed just corny. Nor, as in Cluedo, do we have to hunt for the location or murder weapon, Just the perpetrator(s) will do.

Better to pay tribute to the elegant adaptation, and to Marsden’s sound, at times uncanny judgement on how one most proficiently approaches a mass-audience murder-mystery: not playing garishly to the gallery, but with notable skill, artistry, insight (reading between the lines) and restraint.

Marsden was briefly Artistic Director of Bernard Miles’s legendary Mermaid Theatre (Puddle Dock: growing up in Poplar opposite Greenwich, he maybe retains a youthful nostalgia for Dockland areas). It was the first theatre – pioneering playscripts from 1959 to 2003 - to be completed in the City since Elizabethan times: Shakespeare’s Globe lying south of the river in Southwark.

With its many sly, perceptive, craftily low-key touches, and Marsden’s astute hand on the tiller, one can say Classic Thriller Company’s A Judgement in Stone is without doubt a palpable hit. To 23-09-17

Roderic Dunnett


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