To say that Lucy Bailey’s production of Ayckbourn’s rarely-performed comedy thriller is reminiscent of an episode of Midsomer Murders shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. It paints the same deliciously over-the-top portrait of a Middle England where women in floral prints and sensible shoes do away with each before serving afternoon tea. While the play’s not afraid to tackle some serious issues Bailey ensures that the audience never loses sight of its most attractive quality: its impish sense of humour.
Annabel (Susan Wooldridge) is having the worst 24 hours of her life. If it wasn’t bad enough that her tyrannical father’s demise has forced her to return to the crumbling family residence she hasn’tset foot in for more than three decades, she’s learned that his death was no accident. No, he was murdered by her estranged, stay-at-home sister, Miriam (Sarah Woodward) – who has just dumped the unconscious body of his former nurse and would-be blackmailer, Alice (Mossie Smith) in a deep well behind the disused tennis court in the garden.
In Ayckbourn’s hands murder becomes the ultimate social embarrassment. Faced with the prospect of being blackmailed it’s not clear which fate terrifies Miriam more: failing to pay up and going to prison or having to sell the house to meet Alice’s demands and being forced to live in a camper van in Fulham. It’s in these scenes, when the conventions of the crime novel are used as class satire, that the play really takes flight. Ayckbourn’s interests appear to lie less with pushing the envelope of the genre than mining it for its comic potential.
As the much put-upon Annabel, Wooldridge is a delight. From her pursed-lipped disdain at being hugged by Miriam to her eye-rolling, nostril-flared disbelief at having to explain to her sister that most people would construe tampering with the dosage of someone’s medicine then pushing them down a flight of stairs as murder, she strikes a note of camp that’s pitched perfectly for this blackest of farces.
She’s matched every step of the way by Woodward as the gloriously deranged Miriam, whose seemingly discombobulated mental state at the start of the play hardens into a single-mindedness that is as dark and fearful as the unlit tennis court in which she and Annabel end up swapping grown-up ghost stories about child abuse and violent ex-husbands. Once night has fallen on the sisters and their complex, fractious relationship the humour takes on a darker, more twisted aspect as spooky things start to happen.
It’s at this point that the production’s single set is at its most effective. The cracked concrete, faded line markings, coiled nets and peeling paintwork of the abandoned court have the eerie evocativenessof a deserted children’s playground and, in their ruined state, the psychological resonance of Gothic horror – the other obvious influence on a play about a girl, Miriam, who has been shut away from the world and damaged by a monster of a man.
Not everything works so well. The decision to have the characters speak over one another quickly becomes irritating and is counter-productive in a production that frequently depends on double-takes, stunned silences and exaggerated reactions for its laughs. The play also gets off to a rather leaden start with a cumbersome, exposition-heavy first scene that leaves Smith, as the nurse, with little to do beyond bringing the audience up to speed on the story so far. However, once the two sisters are onstage and trading insults the pace soon picks up.
If you come to Snake in the Grass expecting to be chilled to the bone or knocked sideways by its twists, you may be disappointed. As long as you’ve read your Agatha Christie and paid attention to the fact that Annabel is the sole inheritor of her father’s estate and has a heart condition, the ending probably won’t be much of a surprise. But it doesn’t really matter when a play is written, staged and performed with as much wit as this one.