THE SNAIL HOUSE. Hampstead Theatre, NW1

EVEN A SNAIL WILL REACH ITS HOME

         That’s a Nigerian saying, apparently.   But shiny though the shell is,   Richard Eyre’s play becomes a frustrating stew of ideas, attitudes and family tensions which doesn’t quite hit the finishing line. Directed by the author himself it is rarely less than entertaining,  always emotionally recognizable and interestingly topical: but it’s too humble, too restrained. It doesn’t presume to explode at you and shock your socks off with redemption as Chekhov or Ibsen does (especially when under this most sensitive of directors).   I wanted to like it more.  

      Its set is designed to oppress and make its own point:    a dark-green painted grand hall  lined with glum portraits in heavy frames and chairs to be deployed for a grim banquet in upper-middle Britain.  A public-school is pimping out its premises as a banqueting venue in holidays,  hired tonight by the eminent paediatric consultant and government health adviser Neil (Vincent Franklin).  He rose from the Lancashire working classes and proudly sent his son there, and now is marking the double occasion of his birthday and his knighthood. Lear-like,  he  wants a speech in his praise from his daughter Sarah.   

      However this Cordelia (played with terrifying conviction by Grace Hogg Robinson) is  all too ready to heave her heart into her mouth: scowling in military jacket, cotton frock and big black boots she has  rejected the parental home for a squat (sorry, “property guardianship scheme” ). She resents her parents for bailing her out after a night in the cells on an XR demonstration,  and seethes with  anger about everything from climate change and fracking to multinationals, xenophobia, Tories,  water companies, her Dad, the capitalist conspiracy and Brexit. Obviously as a school dropout aged 18 she is right about all the above.  “I can have principles, even if I don’t pay rent or tax or vote for your fucking government”.    This hatred of wealth does not prevent her from having an extremely expensive brand new bicycle.   Her brother Hugo, who is gay,  swings to the other abominable pole with a flash gas-guzzling car  and a job as a SPAD to the Conservative Education Secretary. He considers Coronavirus as a useful cull of the weakest, and is devoted to winding up his baby sister.  

        So that’s the host family in this dinner-of-the-damned.  In black tie and balldress Dr Neil and his wife skip through early,  but it is from the zero-hours catering staff we learn the details: eighteen to dinner on the heavy oak table (some brisk expert place-laying) and sixty for the dancing and speeches.  These workers enliven the opening scenes:  teenagers Habeeb and  Wynona  crash and sing and joke irreverently around: Megan McDonnell as a lass from Monaghan with a dream of stardom steals every scene she’s in, manically sweary, capering and caterwauling country songs and later pouring scorn on Sarah’s activism  – “so far up your own arse that on a clear day you could see through your bellybutton”.  Supervising these worker-kids with regal Nigerian dignity is Amanda Bright’s Florence.   Their scenes are wonderfully directed , the pragmatic vitality of their work a wicked contrast to the wordy  agonized debates of the employers.  That I loved.   But as the evening wears on – we never see the offstage guests, just  disco lights and sounds of Abba – conflict between Sarah and her father intensifies.  He finds her activism “self absorbed and selfrighteous”  but yearns for her approval; she feels she was never understood by him and cannot accept any merit in his  scientific work and saving of lives, even months in Romanian orphanages.   “My anger lights my world” she says, and suddenly there’s a flash of revelation of real unhappiness.  That works.

     But with  awkward suddenness we get to a meatier issue than these timeworn family dynamics: Florence the caterer suddenly tells Sarah that her father was the expert-witness for the prosecution who got her 19 months in prison for shaking her baby.  We know that recent research has suggested that such convictions may be unsafe, if symptoms are caused by a rare infant disorder.  Florence has learned this, knows herself innocent and wants Neil – who, embarrassingly, is in the process of paying her and the other staff – to apologize.  He blusters,  speaks of medical evidence, the balance of probabilities and his expertise. She tells him he was influenced by her race;  he speaks of statistics of abuse in precisely that racial group, and protests that the legal procedure didn’t let him speak to her to make a personal judgement .    Sarah wants him to be in the wrong and admit it, though showing weirdly little real empathy with Florence.  Will this be Neil’s Lear-in-the-storm moment, suddenly understanding the poor naked wretches of the world? Not quite.   And Florence’s complaint is curiously parallel to Sarah’s.  “Take notice of me! Not as a statistic but as me”.   There’s a dying fall rather than a redemption. It is frustrating.   And then the damn teenager starts on again.  “What have we done. Climate emergency. Brexit. This mess we’re in. And you making me feel like I belong somewhere else”.  It’s all about her again. 

        I suppose it proves dramatic realism, perceptive characterization and fine acting when an audience wants to jump up and slap a main character. But there is something better there, a useful only-connect theme:  the frustration is that it doesn’t quite gell.  

Box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 15 October

Rating three

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