Valentine's Day massacres don't come much more quintessentially English than the one at the heart of Ruth Rendell's 1977 novel, adapted for the stage by Simon Brett and Antony Lampard in a production mounted by Bill Kenwright's Classic Thriller Theatre Company. The curtain opens on Eunice Marchman, the constantly cowed housekeeper to the opera loving Coverdale clan. Their gunning down in their country pile has seen Detective Superintendent Vetch flown in from London to investigate alongside the local force headed up by Detective Sergeant Challoner.
As the pair survey the scene by way of a series of flashbacks in Roy Marsden's production, the class divide is laid bare. This is shown not just by George Coverdale and his new wife Jacqueline's cavalier attitude to marriage, but by George's daughter Melinda's university dalliance that affords her similar freedoms. Her step-brother Giles, meanwhile, takes his lifestyle choices from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In gaudy counterpoint, local post-mistress Joan adopts an evangelical moral stance while sporting leopard-print mini-skirts and egging Eunice on to an explosive kind of liberation.
Filmed twice, first as The Housekeeper in 1986, then by Claude Chabrol as La Ceremonie in 1995, Rendell's story tackles the social gulf that prevailed in a now archaic-looking 1970s. Ideologically, Rendell sides with Sophie Ward's Eunice, who shuffles throughout the play weighed down with a barely educated guilt which only new-fangled technology conspires to give away. The nuances of what drives Eunice may be lost, but in her own way she's exacting the sort of revenge advocated by many freedom fighters in an era blighted by collective neuroses, many consequences of which are only now coming to light.
The Herald, February 15th 2017