Director Lucy Bailey is good at unearthing hidden gems. She has found an abandoned warehouse in Notting Hill and transformed it into the Print Room, which, judging by the swathes of critics present on press night, is quickly becoming a must-see venue. She has also discovered a rarely performed Alan Ayckbourn play, Snake in the Grass, which is a ghost story; a departure, of sorts, for this ferocious comic talent. But plays usually remain hidden for a reason and, although Snake in the Grass is sparky and occasionally moving, it lacks bite.
Ghost stories in theatre break down into two categories: an abandoned spook-fest, like the aptly titled Ghost Stories, or a more subtle psychological thriller, such as Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. The first type type depends on shocking its audience and the second type is a more slow-burning affair, as the protagonist’s sense of self and reality is gradually undermined to horrifying effect. Ghost stories do not have to be psychologically sound, as long as the groans and screams are loud enough. The second type, the psychological thriller, most certainly does.
Ayckbourn’s Snake in the Grass slithers awkwardly between these two camps. Initially, this feels like a lightly shaded piece of dark theatre; a play in which the darker elements are primarily there to spark the laughs. We begin with a stand off between carer, Alice, and prim Annabel, who has returned to her family home after more than thirty years, after learning of her father’s death. Alice has information proving that Annabel’s sister, Miriam, killed their father and wants £100,000 to keep quiet. The carer, with her side ponytail, shining face and cheap twang, looks like she’s lumbered off EastEnders. One expects it would take more than just money to make this bawdy lass stay schtum.
The chalk and cheese aspect of this early encounter – refined lady meets brash lass – makes for some indulgent laughs, but it sets the the bar too low. One settles down for a show of easy laughs and cheap thrills, but it later turns out Ayckbourn is attempting something more complex; less ghoulish but more disturbing. The actors are slightly to blame. Mossie Smith, as nurse Alice, is a bit laboured and her performance could be more textured. Susan Woolridge, as the pastel coloured, pill popping Annabel, initially lacks authority and her performance feels tentative. The dynamic between the two judders awkwardly and they seem to be grasping for laughs rather than really sinking into their roles.
Photo: Sheila Burnett
The play settles with the entrance of down-trodden sister Miriam (Sarah Woodward), who has cared for the sisters’ ailing and railing father her entire life. Woodward drags herself on-stage, her arms trailing reluctantly behind and her eyes filled with ghosts. With a more substantial character now anchoring the writing, Ayckbourn’s play stops creaking and starts crackling. It is very funny and most of the laughs come from the sisters’ obsession with smaller details, at cost of the bigger picture. Often, one forgets their father has died altogether. Instead, the comedy crux points come when the sisters squabble over potentially living in Fulham (Woodward manages to instil one word with such disdain) or, worse still, a caravan.
Ayckbourn is a magpie for detail and his ability to spot strange – but revealing - tension points is near-unparalleled. It is what he does to such brilliant effect in his comedies. In Bedroom Farce, for example, Ayckbourn exposes the deep sadness of three couples using silly, seemingly superficial concerns; an older couple squabble about toast crumbs in bed, lovers bicker about bedroom cabinets or a man, hemmed in by his marriage, refuses to leave his bed. In Ayckbourn’s comedies, the laughs come from using everyday details to reveal a lifetime of agony or repression. But in Snake in the Grass, the laughs come from slightly stretching the bounds of credibility. Yes, it’s funny that these two sisters are more concerned about their living arrangements than their father’s death – but is it believable?
This thin veneer of authenticity is stretched further and further, just as Ayckbourn seems to be trying to switch from a flippant ghost story into something more complex. As darkness falls the sisters, repelled by the thought of a caravan-dwelling existence, wade deeper into trouble, until they finally push the pesky carer down a well. With this problem buried, the two set about unearthing their own deep-rooted problems. ‘Let loose the darkness in you’, urges Miriam of her sister Annabel. Both sisters reveal scorching secrets from their past and these revelations are, in isolation, moving. When Miriam confesses her lifelong loneliness - ‘I might actually go to the grave, never having known real love’ – the audience, all giving up their Valentine’s Day to watch this show, seems to contract in sympathy.
But these stirring confessions sit awkwardly in the production; deep pockets of emotions in an otherwise sparkling but thin garment. Bailey is an innately atmospheric director and the interludes between the scenes, in which dulcet bird twitter descends into spooky twangs and the setting (a derelict tennis court surrounded by barbed wire and threatening overgrowth) is scarier than the scenes themselves. But the spectre of this play – the ghost of the two sister’s abusive father, who has haunted them his entire life – is too deeply hidden. When the father finally appears near the end, clambering onto a spotlit umpire’s chair and booming at his daughters, it is too much too late.
Till 5 March 2011