“Now, of course, everything seems to have a Christmas special, and Sapphire & Steel seems such an unlikely candidate for one that I couldn’t resist it!” That’s Nigel Fairs’ confession in the liner notes, and the resulting Water Like a Stone manages to be melancholic, atmospheric, and yes, even seasonal. Dickens proved that people love a good ghost story at Christmas. Only in this case, instead of three spirits visiting a human, the spirits have three visitors…

The Capitol Palace is a rundown theater, but Arthur Bunnings is trying to wring one more night out of it. The Palace had been the location of his playwright father’s only triumphs, so it seems the best place for the memorial concert in his honor. But the lights are flickering and he keeps hearing a phantom audience and the only thing odder than the two overdressed actors is the owner, Mrs Darwin, who can play the piano without touching it.

Sapphire, Steel, and Ruby have been assigned because some spirit is lingering – possibly an actor or an audience member or maybe even a churchgoer, drowned in the freak flood on Christmas Eve when a church stood on this land. But time is not the only thing that is fracturing within those old walls. Reality itself has started to shatter, scattering the operatives over decades and through the many plays performed here.

I always enjoy audios where the actors flip between roles and much of Water Like a Stone is dedicated to that. Harker, Warner, and Bowerman crop up as fictional characters or as Ruby, Sapphire, and Steel shoved into unlikely roles as they are forced through the highlights of the Palace’s history. (Sapphire’s aggravated turn through an old panto is particularly hilarious, although not as funny as what Warner gets up to when dropped into classical literature.)

But outright hilarity is not common in this universe, so under the fun is a thread of seriousness that keeps the story grounded. There’s a real mystery here, an untold story that must be drawn out for the assignment to be resolved – and mystery fans will be happy to know that the listener is given all the clues so that they can assemble the puzzle along with or possibly even a beat before the operatives.

For science-fiction fans, the interplay gives a few more hints of life wherever the operatives come from. Not enough to spoil that mystery, but a tantalising glimpse into their own motives.

In short, Water Like a Stone has something for everyone. It ranges from humour to horror, has a solid plot, interesting characterisation, throws in several acting challenges, and fulfils the expectations of two genres plus the needs of a holiday special. That’s a lot to put onto anything, but Fairs has risen to the challenge with one of the best stories in this range. If you’re looking for something new, assign Sapphire & Steel to your Christmas.

Water Like a Stone (by Nigel Fairs; starring David Warner, Susannah Harker) was released by Big Finish Productions in December 2006.