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Review: Snake in the Grass at The Print Room

Published 17 February 2011

What happens when you mix One Foot in the Grave with The League of Gentleman? Snake in the Grass is the answer: a gothic drama and black comedy where suburbia meets the absurd in this harrowing and hilarious play written by Alan Ayckbourn.

Set in the dishevelled garden and tennis court of a country house, the production begins with Annabel (Susan Wooldridge) impatiently waiting for her sister among the foliage. Annabel is middle-aged and middle-class and has returned to her family home after a very deliberate absence of 35 years. Her mission: to sort out her recently deceased father’s will and property in a calm, orderly fashion (thank you very much). But things don’t quite go to plan.  As she loiters, she is met by her father’s ex-nurse, Alice (Mossie Smith) – a bolshy, seedy, aggressive woman – who delightedly reveals the real story behind her father’s demise at the hands of his other daughter. Alice, it transpires, has constructed a malevolent plan to blackmail the sisters for huge sums of money; else she’ll cry ‘murder’.

Annabel quickly sees that she is dealing with more than she bargained for: a murder accusation, a dysfunctional, irrational sister in Miriam (Sarah Woodward) who is wrought with anxiety about going to jail, and the unimaginable prospect of losing her wealth and the chance to live in Fulham – or ‘somewhere like Fulham…’

As the pressures of the threat weigh down hard, Miriam begins to take rash and foolish measures to deal with the blackmailer. Soon they are embroiled in a set of affairs which are rather murky indeed. On this backdrop of hysteria, fear, and bereavement, the two sisters engage in an intimate dialogue, filling in the gaps of their lost years – and here the play comes into its own. Discussions give way to arguments, arguments to an obliterating crescendo of regrets, bitterness and rage. Brutal, sordid and genuinely disturbing revelations jar against the persistent, and very funny, comic elements of the play, creating a host of mixed emotions and weaving in a disconcerting hotchpotch of genres.

As if the cringing black comedy and searing emotional drama were not enough, Snake in the Grass works even more twist and turns into the production by introducing a ghost story into the mix. We are forced to step out of the emotional turmoil to ask: what are those noises in the garden at night? Why do the lights keep going out? Who is turning on the tennis ball machine and pounding Annabel with those horrid little yellow balls which chillingly remind her of her childhood abuse?

There a few things that make this play special – unnerving juxtapositions aside. The fact that it’s an all-female cast who are over a ‘certain’ age is more gasp of relief than breath of fresh air; I can’t think of much by way of comparison in recent theatre productions, so hats off to them.

The dynamic between the actors works well and their confidence is vivid throughout. The characters are not realistic by any means, but comedy and gothic drama rarely lend themselves to realism anyway. But there was a drawback for me somewhere in the overall lack of subtlety. All of the characters were over the top, from cringingly common Alice to weepy, agitated Miriam, while a few of the gags were repeated so much that they lost their humour – such as Annabel’s anxiety over the desired size of her boiled egg which was…well, overegged.

The writer, Alan Ayckbourn, asked: ‘Can’t serious things be said equally validly whilst gripping, bewitching or reducing an audience to tears or laughter?’ Snake in the Grass proves that they can; it’s brave to merge a dramatic story of pain, abuse and loss with side-splitting comedy and gothic suspense– but it might make you a touch confounded in the process.

Snake in the Grass
Dates: 9th February till 5th March 2011
Times: 7:30pm (Mon-Sat), 3:30pm matinee (Sat)
Venue: The Print Room – 34 Hereford Road, London W2 5AJ
Ticket prices: £16 (standard), £12 (concessions)
Official website: www.the-print-room.org