Ruth Rendell’s acclaimed novel about class differences and a bloody ‘Valentines Day’ massacre has been adapted for the Classic Thriller Theatre Company production by Simon Brett and Antony Lampard. Sophie Ward stands out as ‘Eunice Parchman’ – a drab and overtly shy housekeeper who mistakes her new employers well-meant intentions for ridicule… with deadly consequences!

The action takes place in 1978, a time when tape recorders were all the rage, video recorders were the next hip thing, and class divide was still going strong. Well, regarding class divide not that much has changed. Enter the Coverdale household in the luxurious Lowfield Hall where bubbly Mrs. Jaqueline Coverdale (Rosie Thomson) looks for a new housekeeper and finds one in Eunice Parchman (Sopie Ward) – a subservient and mousy looking elderly woman with a strong sense of duty. And yes, it would be fair to say that Miss Parchman has more than a few chips on her shoulder regarding her working class background. This soon manifests itself when, for example, she sneers at the family’s love for classical opera, in particular George Coverdale’s (Mark Wynter) near obsession with Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ – an opera that shall be Miss Parchman’s undoing…
Although her outer appearance and entire demeanour stand at odds with the rather modern and forward thinking Coverdale family they soon take a liking to her though begin to wonder as to why she never goes out or seems to have any specific hobbies. As daughter Melinda Coverdale (Jennifer Sims) observes: “She’s rather subdued, isn’t she?”

What they don’t know is that reliable Miss Parchman doesn’t only hold a dark secret but she’s totally illiterate! During the course of action she manages to hide this deeply embarrassing fact by cleverly inventing excuses as to why she ignored yet another shopping list and so forth. Her only, and admittedly unlikely friend is Joan Smith (Deborah Grant), a former prostitute who has found God and who now walks on the straight path. Joan has her own reasons for disliking the Coverdales, especially George…
When the Coverdale family decide that it’s about high time for Miss Parchman to live a little, they even offer her driving lessons and one of dad’s cars (how many does he have?) so she can go out and about a bit more. Whatever they offer her – and it is always meant with the best of intentions – Miss Parchman not only turns it down but she genuinely seems to be offended by the family’s gestures who, in her twisted mind, are obviously out to ridicule and humiliate her for what she is. Or rather, for what she isn’t! Miss Parchman’s illiteracy finally comes to light when Melinda invites her to a crossword puzzle and it’s the housekeeper’s reaction which prompts George to dismiss her though she already incurred his wrath earlier on when he told her off for having friend Joan Smith in the house. Georges’ birthday happens to fall onto Valentines Day and as if the day weren’t special enough already, his beloved opera ‘Don Giovanni’ will be broadcast on the radio that every evening – an event which son Giles Mont (Joshua Price) intends on recording with a tape recorder. Several gunshots later and the Coverdale family lay massacred in their house while the tape recording holds the key to the murder – too bad that someone removed the item from the crime scene…

The story is told in flashback and in the opening scene we see Detective Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Detective Challoner (Ben Nalon) cracking their brains to solve the puzzle by asking Eunice Parchman question after question. As she gives her version of the story it then goes into flashback and we see her arriving at the Coverdale household to take up the new position. Although for a while it looks as if ruffian gardener Roger Meadows (Antony Costa) – a man on parole – might be a likely culprit, the two detectives eventually have to admit that certain facts simply don’t tie up and that Miss Parchman’s statements seem somewhat contradictory…

The cast is excellent and of course, this is Sophie Ward’s triumph though her co-stars are all great. Nice to see veteran actress Shirley Ann Field (The Entertainer, Peeping Tom, Horrors of the Black Museum) is still active in the business, here she plays cleaner Eva Baalham and makes us laugh with some funny lines. Deborah Grant’s ‘Joan Smith’ is a total riot and infuses the production with much-needed jolts of energy and brash humour and no doubt director Roy Marsden has a knack for bringing out the best in everyone. The first act, it has to be said, merely plods along though thankfully the action really unfolds in the second act. Why the two acts seem rather imbalanced is a question that only co-adaptors Simon Brett and Antony Lampard can answer.

A JUDGEMENT IN STONE runs until Sat. 18th February (www.edtheatres.com)
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