Six years ago, when Snake in the Grass was first performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, my predecessor acknowledged its clever theatricality and entertainment value, but took issue with the contrived and predictable ending and the broad characterisation. Now, in its revival as part of the Things that Go Bump season, it’s still true that most of the multiple endings are flagged up pretty obviously, but the quality of the acting is exceptional. Snake in the Grass may occupy a modest mid-table position in the Premiership of Alan Ayckbourn plays, but a remarkable performance from Susie Blake, in particular, goes a long way to conceal the fact.
The plot appears simple, though interventions from the spirit world and, especially, concealments, deceptions and devious plots from the living make truth hard to come by. Annabel, an apparently self-confident businesswoman, returns from Australia after the death of the father from whom she escaped many years previously. Miriam, her sister, who sacrificed her own independent life to nurse him, is being blackmailed by Alice, his former nurse, who has evidence that Miriam is largely responsible for his death.
In fact Annabel is a recovering alcoholic with heart problems and an abusive broken marriage, but is anything else as it first appears? A deal of black comedy ensues, plus ghostly manifestations on the tennis courts and a serious and sensitive examination of the trauma of abuse.
Snake in the Grass projects a less than pleasant view of Mankind, with three characters who forfeit the audience’s sympathy while laying claim to its understanding. Susie Blake (Miriam), initially a pathetically stumbling figure with no grip on reality beyond her terror of prison, encompasses everything from skipping girlhood to cold criminality in a compelling (and often very funny) performance that explores the borders of sanity.
Liza Goddard partners her perfectly in the less flamboyant, but still layered, role of Annabel and Ruth Gibson, in the underwritten role of Alice, manages to avoid caricature and, together with Goddard, forcefully sets up the conflict of characters almost from the first minute of the play.
Alan Ayckbourn’s deft direction and Pip Leckenby’s crumbling grandeur of a garden set are of the usual meticulous Scarborough standard and, if the play is not the master-playwright at its best, it successfully combines manic humour with bleak honesty. The intrusions from the spirit world may frighten, but the real terror comes from the human beings.