To the always buzzing Orchard Theatre at Dartford for this new adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s book by Simon Brett with Antony Lampard; and Mr Brett’s comedy credentials (notably After Henry) show in some judiciously placed deadpan lines.
The curtain opens on a classic country house murder mystery set, beautifully realised by designer Julie Godfrey. But straight away we know we’re at a crime scene because of the police tape across a doorway. More unsettling is that the police are on the scene (The Bill’s Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon) and it’s several weeks after a multiple murder. But in the next moment the victims are on the stage and we’re instantly and efficiently transported back nine months to when they first appoint their new housekeeper Eunice Parchment (Sophie Ward playing a nervy social misfit but still commanding the stage). From this point on we are easily introduced to the narrative structure, with the police progressing their investigation in the present and the flashbacks inching ever closer to the moment of the crime we all know is coming.
This structure is, in a way, the essence of the appeal of the play. We know what the crime is and that its eventual execution will reveal the perpetrators to us. But we’re also treated to some effectively drawn characters, each with distinctive characteristics effectively realised by a big name cast. The murdered Coverdale family is headed by Robert Duncan – to me best known for Drop the Dead Donkey. And dour maid Eva Baalham is played by Shirley Anne Field – who starred in the new wave of British films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Entertainer. Also giving what we may call a bravura turn as peroxide blond nosey parker post mistress Joan Smith is Deborah Grant, a TV stalwart having recently been in Not Going Out and first coming to notice in Bergerac.
Roy Marsden directs this engrossing evening with plenty to reward an attentive theatre goer. If you thought the current BBC series Rellik was being novel in its backwards narrative structure, think again and enjoy this neat and convincing murder mystery from end to beginning.
Until 30 September at Dartford Orchard Theatre and on tour.