Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.


That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

Review: A Murder is Announced at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to review the Middle Theatre Company Ltd’s latest production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced on its opening night of a five-night run at the wonderful Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

While young Agatha Christie’s husband was away fighting in the First World War, she worked in the dispensary of the University College Hospital, London, where surrounded by poisons the idea of writing her first detective story was conceived. Her elder sister Madge was an avid supporter of the idea, so Agatha rose to the challenge, and the rest as they say is history.

Mrs Christie was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1971 to honour her many literary works. Known as The Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha penned thirteen novels in the  Miss Marple series. A Murder is Announced is a firm favourite amongst fans of the series.

As Act One of A Murder is Announced opens, the audience are invited into Letitia Blacklock’s drawing room at Little Paddocks, her typically Victorian home in Chipping Cleghorn.

Within minutes of the opening the audience are gripped by the storytelling (adapted for stage by Leslie Darbon) when Dora Bunner, the delightfully dizzy and slightly senile Bunny reads an article from the local paper which reads:

“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October the twenty-ninth, at Little Paddocks – at six thirty p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”

The residents are thrown into an excitable turmoil, not sure whether to be thrilled by the excitement in this unexpected event for a sleepy country village or scared by the threat to them. Is it a practical joker taking things a step too far, or is the threat real and the residents should be in fear of their lives…?

Not wanting to spoil the surprise and give the plot away, I’ll just say that the second half of the investigation into the running order of events at Little Paddocks after 6.30pm on that evening is methodically unraveled by Inspector Craddock, along with Sergeant Mellors.

Local resident – and in Inspector Craddock’s view the interfering – Miss Marple (Louise Jameson) decides to get involved and make her own discoveries about the order of events.

It is a small cast of just twelve, but you’ll be thrilled with the star studded line up from Janet Dibley (Fat Friends and Eastenders) as Letitia Blacklock, Louise Jameson (Bergerac and Tenko) as Miss Marple, Tom Butcher (The Bill and Emmerdale) as Inspector Craddock and Dean Smith (Waterloo Road and Last Tango in Halifax) as Edmund Swettenham, to name just a few that you’ll recognise.

There are comic interludes when the wonderful Hungarian housemaid Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak) takes to the stage, which lighten the audience’s mood amongst the more serious elements of the story.

A Murder is Announced plays at the Orchard from 15th to 19th August. Grab your ticket while you still can to find out whodunnit!

Review: Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio

Macbeth: the story of a man driven by personal ambition to destroy his friend and leader, and seize the crown for himself. Sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way, he ultimately leads his nation into civil war…

There could not have been a more pertinent day to see Arrows & Traps’ production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio. Macbeth isn’t an easy watch at the best of times, but the events of the previous 24 hours lent last night’s performance an extra intensity that nobody could have foreseen, and took Ross McGregor’s adaptation from pretty dark to full-blown horror. (A brief addition to the script referencing the shock EU referendum result met with a split second of laughter, until we all remembered it was based in reality, and not actually very funny.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Macbeth isn’t a totally bad guy (though not a particularly nice one either, obviously) but rather someone who allows himself to be led onto a dark path and discovers too late there’s no way back. As Macbeth and his wife, David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann are genuinely frightening – he’s full of violence and rage, while she’s cold and calculating, and together they spin a web of lies and commit crimes that are increasingly bloody and shocking. And yet the revulsion we feel is not without more than a hint of sympathy; both characters ultimately break under the weight of their guilt, and their passionate relationship of the opening scenes disintegrates into one of tension, fear and suspicion. It’s in these moments of vulnerability that Paisley and Baumann are at their most compelling; the pain they feel is palpable and devastating to witness.

It’s not just the Macbeths that are out to scare us, though; McGregor wanted his Macbeth to be one that’s all about fear, and he’s got his wish. The three witches, played by Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams, are part-demon, part-seductress, and their regular appearances on stage throughout the play remind us who’s really in control of events. There’s no shortage of blood and gore from the start, and a few jumpy moments just to keep us on the edge of our seats. And then there’s Banquo’s ghost…

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

In the kind of original twist that we’ve come to expect from Arrows & Traps, in this production almost all Macbeth’s victims are female – most notably Duncan (Jean Apps) and Banquo (Becky Black) – as are his hired assassins. Seeing this violence both from and against women is a shock to the audience, hammering home the depths to which Macbeth is driven in his thirst for power. And it puts a fresh perspective on the relationships in the play – both Duncan and Banquo are loving mothers who share tender moments with their sons, while we’re also led to wonder about the exact nature of Macbeth’s friendship with Banquo as the play begins.

Like the company’s previous production, Anna Karenina, the show’s a visual feast; there’s smoke and blood galore, and some intense physical scenes from fight director Alex Payne. The climactic scene of Macbeth’s death is particularly stunning, with choreography, movement and music coming together to turn a moment of violence into something quite beautiful from which it’s impossible to look away.

The set is simple – just a table at the centre of the stage – and without the need for elaborate set changes, the production moves along at a rapid pace. The overlapping of some moments is particularly effective, as is the use of freeze frame during the dinner scene, contrasting Macbeth’s dark intentions with the merriment of his guests. And music is used to great effect to add drama, giving the play a very cinematic feel that seems to extend far beyond the theatre’s small stage.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

This is the third Arrows & Traps production I’ve seen, and each time I’m surprised and delighted by their unique, inventive take on classic works. Their Macbeth is a political and supernatural thriller that’s as gripping as any episode of Game of Thrones (the body count is about the same, too), and reminds us once again of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance 500 years after his death. As depressing as that relevance may occasionally be.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Hitchcock Homage at Barons Court Theatre

The setting could hardly be more appropriate. Leaving behind the cheerful bustle of the Curtains Up pub in Barons Court, we descend a narrow flight of stairs towards a small, dark basement theatre, inside which the familiar Psycho theme music can be heard. As we take our seats, we discover a dead body on the floor, and as the lights go down, an instantly recognisable figure steps on to the stage.

So begins Hitchcock Homage, a play written and directed by Nick Pelas, and loosely based on the 1948 movie Rope. Two lovers have killed a man, seemingly for no obvious reason, and hidden his body inside a chest. While Beth (Grace Carmen-Davis) is ice-cool, Claudia (Francesca Mepham) can’t quite decide if she’s turned on or terrified by what they’ve done, and the pressure is beginning to get to her. The two plan to host a party for friends and family of the victim, at which snacks will be arranged on the very chest in which the dead man, Nick, is concealed. But as the party gets underway, it becomes clear that old schoolmate Roberta Fox (Roxanne Douro) is the true guest of honour…


As in the movie, which is famous for appearing to be one single continuous shot, all the action in Pelas’ play takes place in Beth and Claudia’s apartment. Because of this, the opening scenes feel a little clunky, as many of the characters – including Hitchcock himself (David Parry) – enter one by one to briefly establish who they are and their role within the story, and it’s a relief when the party begins and the action can start to flow more seamlessly.

Pelas’ tribute to the ‘master of suspense’ includes plenty of references to Hitchcock’s work, including cameo appearances from the man himself and a twist ending. And if there’s not a huge amount of suspense in the traditional sense, the murder already having been committed before the play begins, there’s nonetheless plenty of tension – both social and sexual – in the intensely awkward gathering of several distinctly unloveable characters. There’s the friend who’s only interested in making connections (Kitty Kelly), the guest who drinks too much and refuses to give straight answers to a question (Cath Humphrys), the shameless flirt (Shaun Dicks), the surly maid (Daniela Mansi); even the victim, we soon learn, wasn’t a particularly nice guy. Only Bentley (Yasser Kayani), with his clumsy attempts to woo Roberta and apparently genuine concern for his brother’s welfare, and – to a certain extent – Claudia, who gradually unravels as the play goes on, inspire any kind of sympathy. This assortment of unsavoury characters makes the whole idea of the party less sadistic and shocking than it might perhaps otherwise have been; after a while we almost want someone to find the body, just to see what they’ll do.

Photo credit: Nick Pelas
Photo credit: Nick Pelas
The other side effect of the gathering is that both story and stage become a bit crowded, and it starts to be difficult to keep track of who’s who and the relationships between them. It’s clear that several of them go way back, a fact that proves in at least one case to be key to the motivation at the heart of the story. While the cringeworthy social interactions are fun (I particularly enjoyed Ken and Layla’s insightful movie criticism), it would have been great to spend a little more time exploring these dysfunctional relationships in greater depth, to help us better understand both the events of the play and its disturbing conclusion.

Nick Pelas’ enthusiasm and admiration for Hitchcock’s work is clear throughout the play, and while some of the references may perhaps be lost on non-aficionados, the story also stands on its own as an exploration of the lengths human beings will go to in order to be accepted. The plot might date from the early 20th century, but in an age where few of us can do anything without immediately taking to social media to let our friends (and others) know about it, the story is still very relevant – much like Hitchcock himself, whose influence will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Mousetrap at the Orchard Theatre

The Mousetrap is one of those plays that brings with it a sort of legend. The world’s longest-running production has been playing to audiences in the West End since 1952, where it continues to this day, in addition to the national tour that now brings the play to Dartford. Much of its success, I suspect, lies in its air of mystery; as the curtain falls, audiences are kindly requested not to reveal the secret. And while there’s no way to know for sure, it seems most people do keep it to themselves – in a world where social media makes it far too easy to stumble on spoilers (Game of Thrones, anyone?) I’m amazed and impressed that I’ve never caught so much as a hint of the plot, let alone the identity of the murderer.


Photo credit: Liza Maria Dawson

So in keeping with that, there’s not much I can say by way of summary. A young couple, Molly and Giles, open a guesthouse on a snowy night. As their first guests arrive, news comes over the wireless about a murder committed the day before in London. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to go… but this is Agatha Christie, after all, so suffice to say there are secrets, plot twists and a spooky nursery rhyme, and by the end of Act 1 you can expect to be totally confused about who anyone really is or what’s actually going on.

Now let’s be honest – The Mousetrap isn’t Agatha Christie’s best story. It doesn’t have the creeping tension of And Then There Were None, nor does it feature either of the famous detectives Poirot or Miss Marple, and there are a few slightly frustrating loose ends left dangling at the end of the show. Even the author didn’t expect it to run for more than eight months, so the play’s enduring success is a bit of a mystery in itself. But there’s plenty to enjoy in this traditional whodunnit: an eccentric cast of characters; a set that’s as labyrinthine as the plot; a touch of humour; another touch of danger… and of course, the potential satisfaction to be found in correctly identifying the guilty party. (Not that I’d know – but I assume it’s pretty satisfying.)

Photo credit: Liza Maria Dawson

Like most Christie plays, the cast in Ian Watt-Smith’s production are very much an ensemble, working together to confuse and misdirect the audience. Oliver Gully is wonderful as the flamboyant architect Christopher Wren – no, not that one – and former Eastender Louise Jameson is thoroughly detestable as the stern and snobbish Mrs Boyle. There’s also an enjoyably bizarre turn from Gregory Cox as Mr Paravicini; both character and actor are clearly having fun in the role of the inevitable unexpected guest.

The Mousetrap is a clever and finely crafted story – but then we’d expect no less from the Queen of Crime. More than that, though, it’s an undisputed phenomenon, and for that reason alone this record-breaking play is a must-see.

The Mousetrap is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 21st May.