We are about to watch a thriller. We know this because the play is called A Judgement in Stone, and the company is called The Classic Thriller Theatre Company. Here we have the wood panelled drawing room, police tape covering a crime scene, a strange ‘outsider’ and a couple of detectives. What could possibly go wrong?
The play is set in 1978 in the Coverdales’ house, Lowfield Hall. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are both on their second marriage and there is a child, a ‘step’ from each of the former marriages. These four represent the upper classes in the play. They are contrasted by Joan Smith, a scene stealing Deborah Grant in mini skirt and white PVC boots, Rodger Meadows, a gardener on parole, played by Antony Costa and Eva Baalham, the cleaner, played by no other than Shirley Anne Field. They along with Eunice Peachman, played by Sophie Ward, are the lower classes, and the contrasts between them and the Coverdales is at the psychological heart of the story.
One of the issues I had with this production was the character of Eunice Peachman. Eunice is central to the story – the working class, awkward woman who comes to the house of a wealthy family to be their housekeeper and that is where their problems begin. For me Eunice doesn’t quite ring true and I think it is because Sophie Ward has been woefully miscast in this role. Sporting a silver bobbed wig and no make up does not hide the fact that this is a beautiful actress playing a dowdy part. Her obvious ‘working class’ accent did not seem very natural to me either.
This adaptation would probably have worked really well on television. The action relies on flashbacks showing the lead up to the murders interspersed with the detectives questioning their suspects. This is a clumsy device onstage with characters entering the room, whilst others are exiting it (when they really shouldn’t meet at all!). On the small screen, this would be taken care of with a fade out or just a cut to scene. Occasionally, we hear ominous music, highlighting ‘a creepy moment’. On television this is what we expect, to draw us in and add to the tension, but onstage it seemed forced and out of place.
A star-studded cast does not always equal brilliant theatre. Most of the performances were good (Ben Nealon, as Detective Sergeant Challoner and Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, the ex- prostitute turned evangelist deserve special mention) but I wasn’t thrilled by this thriller. ★★☆☆☆ Karin André at Oxford Playhouse 5th September 2017
Photograph by Geraint Lewis