"Rehashed Alan Ayckbourn's Entertaining Revival"
by Lexi Wolfe for remotegoat on 20/09/18

Snake In The Grass is a 2002 Alan Ayckbourn play about two sisters: the elder, Annabel a failed businesswoman recently free of an abusive marriage, and reluctantly returned from Tasmania; and the younger, Miriam, long-term ‘spinster’ carer for their recently passed father in the family home in a village in England. On Annabel’s return, their father’s nurse approaches her, threatening the freedom of her sister with an incriminating letter, the rest of the play hinging upon the contents and Nurse Moody’s blackmail of the two sisters, the accusation and the sisters’ very stifled, guilt/blame relationship. The action takes place in a single setting (the back garden).

The set design nicely portrays the world - or, indeed, village - we find our main characters in: trapped in an ageing, crumbling house with nothing else to their names but bad memories and bitter relations. The starting action was not a particularly good one, as, for the first ten minutes, dismissed nurse Alice Moody (Justine Sewell) and divorcee Annabel Chester (Penny Cooper) engaged in what felt very Your-Line-My-Line. This was, however, opening night, and things soon warmed up, especially with the arrival of Amanda Hunt as Miriam Chester, who entered with the right pitch and near-hysteria to get the pace of the piece really going. It was played as it was written, initially leading the audience to believe they are about to watch something of a kitchen sink drama, reminiscent of Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquest trilogy or even By Jeeves. However, the stakes intensify and the twists start to turn part-way through the second scene.

Nurse Moody’s character is much warmer when we see her the second time, but Annabel feels wholly wooden and difficult to feel sympathy for throughout, even with her ultimate sympathetic character token - the heart condition. Cooper’s decision to continually turn her back to the audience, while understandable when going up steps in the middle of the stage etc., is no less frustrating for how often it happened while she was addressing someone upstage. As Miriam, Hunt steals the show and even when the upcoming final twist becomes predictable it is hard not to feel sorry for her character and side with her, even with the somewhat annoying Actor’s Tick of putting her hand to her head to indicate her going through an intense emotion, whether good or bad. There was only one missed moment, in which it has become apparent that Miriam has spiked the Nurse’s wine. Either directionally or as an acting choice, a real shift, wherein Annabel realises what her sister has done and Miriam either downplays it or is tongue-in-cheek showing off about it, passes almost so quickly one can’t tell that the direction of the action is now significantly changed with this exposition. Some of the staging, especially when the sisters talk to one another, is slightly questionable, and there could have been some bolder choices of turning to look out towards the audience in order to let us in a little more, here and there, to mix up the cheated addressing of one another often done in profile.

SPOILERS BELOW

There was a touch of the End Being Played in the final act, which was how I was able to predict the ending (not having read or seen the play myself previously). On the other hand, my review companion did not. In this way, the play matter itself feels very much ripped from the likes of Les Diaboliques, and though only just over fifteen years old, the exchange of ghost stories between the sisters, while touching, is fringed by a monologue by Miriam that has not aged well - in which the sisters discuss Annabel’s beating by her partner Brad and Miriam’s sexual abuse as previously implied, at the hands of her father. While well attacked by the capable Hunt, the idea of fault and it being about love would not sit well with a young modern audience.

The show ends with its delicious treachery, nicely balanced between theatricalism and naturalism, descending into its final moments of supernatural confusion a la ‘Haunting Julia’ to round off its occasional jump-scares throughout. A lovely little production, well-endeavoured, that is well worth the distraction of an evening and a return visit to the charming Playhouse Theatre.

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