Note: The following review dates from June 2002 and this production's original run at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.
So, it's another economy season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Last year Alan Ayckbourn demonstrated how a theatre might marshal its resources to maximum effect by writing a seasonful of unconnected plays, all to be played on the same set. Nothing, however, forewarns audiences for Snake in the Grass that this three-hander has been written to be played on the set of Ayckbourn's 1978 comedy Joking Apart, a revival of which joins it in tandem for the bulk of the summer season and thereafter on tour.
It's quite a jolly set, designed by Roger Glossop, but weird. There's this tiny, vaguely Ruritanian, garden with a tennis court off one end and a gazebo very close to the house off the other; and in between, a few irregularly shaped paving stones set into a lawn which is mostly close-cropped but afflicted by an acne of bizarre wee tussocks.
Here, Miriam (Susie Blake) has nursed her cantankerous old father to his death (which she apparently hastened somewhat), along with - until recently, when she was sacked - his care worker Alice (Rachel Atkins); and it is to here that Miriam's elder sister Annabel (Fiona Mollison) returns from her failed antipodean marriage to claim the property left to her in the will, and to set up home with her sister in Fulham, perhaps.
It would be unfair to reveal more, as this is not yet another Ayckbourn comedy (despite there being a fair smattering of comic lines in it) but rather an Ayckbourn ghost thriller. And given that nobody structures a play with more perfect control of his craft, the requisite number of plot twists arrive at the appropriate moments. The author's point, beyond serving up an acceptable entertainment (which he surely does), is the unsensational one that our ghosts are within us, and to this end, we have cursory visits to such issues as parental paedophilia, marital violence and lesbianism.
To do his bidding, Ayckbourn the director has hired a superb cast but strangely urges them to rather broader strokes than serve the best interests of his play. Atkins adopts an unacceptably amorphous 'stage northern' accent; Mollison affects an equine snort and speaks as though addressing a crowded marquee at Badminton; and Blake, the pick of the three, whilst not credibly from the same stable - let alone the same blood line - as her sister, pursues a subtly artful and consistent line through the text which makes it perhaps too clear who is the puppetmeister.
Scarborough's predominantly elderly audience took it all with a gentle purr and without apparent cardiac palpitations, up to and including the ending with its final cop-out twist which had been flagged up well in advance.
- Ian Watson
Snake in the Grass continues at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre until 7 September 2002, then visits Bowness-on-Windermere, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bolton.