A Judgement in Stone is an adaptation of a classic crime novel from Ruth Rendell, one of the stand-alone chillers from the first half of her writing life. Writers Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have made a fundamental change in the nature of the material in that they've turned a whydunnit (a psycho-drama) into a whodunnit (a thriller). It largely depends on one's point of view whether the product of this transformation is of a lesser or a greater order. Thus the seeker of creepy atmosphere, guessing games and violent murder (more offstage here than visualized, and the more effective for that) is likely to be satisfied by the result, whereas those questions about serious crime which primarily interested Ms Rendell – motive, identification of tipping point, close examination of high emotion and post-Freudian analysis of hysteria – may be disappointed by the modification of focus.
On Valentine's Day, four members of the wealthy Coverdale family are done to death at their rural mansion in the space of 15 minutes as they watch a TV broadcast of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni. The police patiently investigate but need a break in their search for the identity and motive of the killer. What the book and drama have in common is an interest in the slow-motion train collision that is the antithetical relationship between the two social groups into which the characters fit - in the blue overall corner, housekeeper Eunice Parchman, her only friend Joan Smith, a retired sex worker and now noisily born-again Christian, and the estate handyman on prison parole and desperate to keep his nose clean. In their opposition in the bluestocking corner strut the posh, sophisticated, hyper-educated, middle class Coverdales. These are the kind of people who paste quotes for the day on the kitchen pinboard, study Buddhist mantras as teenagers for fun and take notes while watching opera, already knowing the score by heart. The scene is set for a clash of class, money, opportunity and unequally-rewarded labour.
From the moment the curtain swung open, the numerous Waterside audience knew that director Roy Marsden had elected to play the material straight. Here was no set based on imaginative suggestion; it just oozed 1970s bourgeois wealth from the oak panelling in the drawing room (solid) to the porphyry fireplace (massive) and the pile carpet (deep). The social comment is broad - Sophie Ward's housekeeper spoke to the rhythm of a lugubrious plod (I looked for some sign of development in the character but found none) whereas Rosie Thompson's employer adopted something of a flighty, fluting tone; delicately caught by Rosie Thomson. Antony Costa's (once of boy band 'Blue' and now last seen as Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk) grouchy handyman stumps about while Mark Wynter's paterfamilias (genial, but with a core of if not steel then tough plastic) zips around as though on casters (pretty remarkable for a 74 year old actor). The principal point of interest in the staging concerns the structure of the narrative which bounces between two timelines: two detectives try in real time to piece together the fatal events while in prequel those events run tantalisingly past us. The transitions occur with oiled fluidity – the adapters and Mr Marsden have taken on board the current trend in filmmaking, originating in TV soap opera, for brief scenes and lightning cutting.
Sound is employed to outline the Coverdales' appreciation of high culture simultaneously with giving us a latter-day music hall singing scene from the outrageously mini-skirted, faux tiger-skinned Joan Smith (Deborah Grant, comically larger than life and three times as loud). The lighting is carefully modulated appropriate to the scenes' time-frame, and from the warmer colours of Act I to chillier shades in Act II.
Those people in the audience – hardcore Rendell aficionados – seeking exploration and even explanation of the psychology of the grey-black recesses of the mind may come away a shade disappointed. Those who have come to relax over a puzzle served up with a peppering of spice and a drizzle of humour will be content, and that they were in the overwhelming majority was demonstrated by the warmth of the curtain-call.