RUTH Rendell is often hailed as Agatha Christie's successor, but she beats the Queen of Crime in a thrilling race in York next week.

Rendell's A Judgement In Stone opens at the Grand Opera House on Monday, whereas Middle Ground Theatre Company arrives a day later at the Theatre Royal with a Miss Marple mystery, A Murder Is Announced.

Produced by impresario Bill Kenwright and staged by The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, A Judgement In Stone features a stellar cast of Chris Ellison, Robert Duncan, Sophie Ward, Deborah Grant, Shirley Anne Field, Ben Nealon and Antony Costa, who will return to the Cumberland Street theatre to play the Beast in Beauty And The Beast from December 15.

Rendell's plot unravels a lifetime of deceit, despair and cover-ups in its story of Eunice, who struggles to fit in. When she joins a wealthy family as their housekeeper, the very reason for her awkwardness, long hidden and deeply buried, leads inexorably to a terrible tale of murder in cold blood on St Valentine’s Day.

Sophie Ward takes the lead role of Eunice. "It's an ensemble piece, where I play Eunice, who's a misfit, an outsider, who's arrived very gratefully at the Coverdales' house to become their housekeeper, but right from the start you know that the entire family is dead," she says.

This is NOT a spoiler alert, It is the way the story is constructed by Rendell, not so much as a whodunit but a whydunit. "The story then goes back into the past, alternating between the present, with the police doing their interviews, and the past when you see the family's various tensions that may have led them to murder," says Sophie.

"It's more about the psychology of the family, and it's somewhat political too, with the interesting dynamic of the family and the people that work for them. Different audiences react to it differently, taking different sides, with their sympathies going in different ways. They're not terrible people but there is a culture clash where they don't understand each other, and there's a polarisation in our society that doesn't seem to have ameliorated; historically we're always happier in ourselves when we have a fairer society."

York Press:

Whogunit: Robert Duncan as George Coverdale in A Judgement In Stone.Picture: Geraint Lewis

Sophie describes Eunice as a "quite extraordinary part". "She's a true, true misfit who's never had a relationship in her life, bad relations with her parents and no siblings and she's sort of marooned. I don't think I've ever played anyone quite like her before so it's a huge gift of a role that I was so excited to bring it to life," she says.

"I'm working with Roy [director Roy Marsden] for the first time and that's been an amazing experience. He's got an extraordinary eye; he's very involved and very helpful."

Assessing the differences between Christie and Rendell's crime writing, Sophie says: "My feeling is that Christie's stories are plot driven, very tight and they're very much a whodunit, whereas Rendell's work is much more character driven and psychological. It's the story that's interesting, whereas with Christie it's all about the revelation at the end."

Along with Chris Ellison, Robert Duncan, of Drop The Dead Donkey fame, is the latest addition to Marsden's cast for the latest tour. "I suppose it's like being the super-sub called on to the field to score a vital goal, but in this case they're all doing incredibly well already, and I know most of them from working with them before, so it was like returning to a family and was less daunting than it could have been, though it's always quite scary when you're the new boy trying to fit in."

Robert was originally set to perform in something else but that fell through, "so I asked if I could do this show and Roy Marsden said 'yes'. We only had four or five days to rehearse but it's all so well choreographed, and by the fourth week I was just about there!"

He is playing George Coverdale. "I'm the head of the family that sadly all gets massacred with George's guns, so I'm a suspect...along with members of my family and outsiders too," says Robert. "It's a cracking story, quite a dark piece, and the cleverest thing about it is that we keep having to go back into the past as the two inspectors try to find out who committed this dastardly act until it all merges into the past and we then see what really happened."

A Judgement In Stone runs at Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday, October 16 to 21. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at