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The Bill star Chris Ellison has a mystery to solve in Ruth Rendell thriller

Chris Ellison, Antony Costa and Ben Nealon in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis

Chris Ellison, Antony Costa and Ben Nealon in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis

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Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, sees actor Chris Ellison back in policeman mode.

The cast of A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis The cast of A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis

There’s not much Chris can tell me about the play, it is a mystery after all.

We last spoke a few years ago aboard a boat on Ipswich Waterfront. A blisteringly hot day, he’ll never forget melting beneath his cumbersome Captain Hook garb promoting the pantomime Peter Pan.

A Judgement In Stone sees the actor, famous for playing DCI Frank Burnside in ITV’s The Bill and Burnside, in more comfortable territory as the detective superintendent investigating a grizzly multiple murder.

“Yeah, I’m playing a policeman, what a surprise,” laughs Chris. “I’ve taken over from Andrew Lancel who came in as a DI in The Bill after me. So it’s strange I’ve taken over from him in this.”

Robert Duncan in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis Robert Duncan in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis

Outsider Eunice is employed as housekeeper to a well-to-do family. So begins a terrible tale of deceit, despair and death told in flashbacks.

It was penned by Suffolk’s queen of crime, the late Ruth Rendell. Often hailed as the successor to Agatha Christie, she’s credited with revitalising the mystery genre. Her work includes film and TV as well as 80 novels, some under her own name and others as Barbara Vine - her middle name and the maiden name of her great-grandmother.

Much of the multi-award winning novelist’s writings reflected her love and knowledge of Suffolk, the county she adopted. Sudbury features in Gallowglass and Bury St Edmunds in The Brimstone Wedding. A Fatal Inversion includes Polstead and Nayland, while Orford and Aldeburgh are found in No Night is Too Long. When the Labour-supporting socialist became a life peer in the House of Lords in 1997, the title she chose was Baroness Rendell of Babergh.

“I’m no expert, but I find her stuff more a psychological thriller. It’s interesting because it’s based much more on the people, rather than the plot,” says Chris of the play, which was filmed as The Housekeeper in 1986, starring Rita Tushingham; and as La Cérémonie in 1995, directed by Claude Chabrol and starring Sandrine Bonnaire.

Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Geraint Lewis

His character is the tough Metropolitan detective sent to the scene after weeks of the local police getting nowhere.

“When the story starts, you already know who’s dead, this entire family has been murdered. It intermingles the past and the present, so you get the whole family story over a period of about a year; the things that happened, their relationships leading up to these murders.

“You see the characters who are dead walking on and off stage, re-interacting; they’re like ghosts. It’s quite clever. A lot of people have made up their own minds about who they think has done it... that’s about as good an explanation as I can give,” adds Chris, who’s only appeared in one Ruth Rendell mystery before now, the TV adaptation of the Inspector Wexford mystery Wolf to the Slaughter.

Sounds intriguing.

Sophie Ward in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Mark Yeoman Sophie Ward in A Judgement In Stone, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Mark Yeoman

“That’s a very good description of the play, in fact that’s a recurring line of mine; on more than one occasion ‘I’m intrigued to know...’ so it’s the kind of line that rings with me,” says the part-time artist who, after his brush with murder, will be exhibiting in London early next year.

“The thing about being a painter is you accumulate work. Unless you’re shifting it, it takes over your home,” he laughs. “I’m looking forward to seeing some of them disappear over the horizon. I’m obviously not doing much at the moment... in an ideal world I’d like to spend a lot more time painting.”

By the way Chris, that Agatha Christie dramatisation set on an island you got hooked on but neither of us could remember the name of; it was And Then There Were None. I won’t tell you who did it, in case you do catch up.

n A Judgement In Stone also stars Sophie Ward, Shirley Anne Field, Robert Duncan, Deborah Grant, Antony Costa and Ben Nealon. It’s directed by Roy Marsden, best known as Commander Adam Dalgliesh in the Anglia TV adaptations of books by Rendell’s friend and fellow Suffolk resident PD James. Presented by Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company, see it at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, October 2-7.

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