Snake in the Grass is a 2003 piece by the legendary playwright Alan Ayckbourn. I believe it is actually his 61st play, so it is no surprise that after all that practice, he knows what he is doing! The play is a three hander which on the surface tells the story of two long estranged sisters dealing with the aftermath of the loss of their elderly (and as it transpires, abusive) father. The play centres around the homecoming of Annabel Chester, the elder sister, returning to the family home after many years living abroad. Younger sister Miriam has been eternally tied to the apron strings as full-time carer for their father. The relationship between these two sisters forms the backdrop to the action. The third protagonist is Alice Moody, the nurse who has been helping Miriam to care for the father through his last difficult years. The action takes place on a late summers’ afternoon in the garden of the dilapidated family home and continues into the late evening. As the sun sets and the darkness arrives, so too are secrets exposed and the light gives way to the darkness in lots of other ways.
This Tabs Theatre Production – the final instalment in this 35th anniversary year of the Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season here at Theatre Royal Nottingham – is divided across three scenes, and in the first scene we meet the older sister Annabel played here by Karen Henson. Annabel is a feisty, straight talking, although stressed and somewhat highly strung character – a business-person in her everyday life, but also someone who we learn has struggled with alcohol, personal relationships and health. Henson portrays the sense of anxious dread at being back in this place haunted by childhood memories of pain to perfection. She also gives us haughty and snappy rather well too. However, Henson gives Annabel a charming even whimsical quality – she is simply dreaming of a quiet and uneventful life in a flat in Fulham.
Annabel’s first encounter in the garden is with aggrieved Nurse Alice (Sarah Wynne Kordas) who has been lying in wait for her to return in order to warn her that little sister Miriam had a hand in ‘hastening’ their old man’s death. The dialogue between these two characters is invested with real energy here and the mystery and thrill of the piece is laid bare right from the outset. It really is difficult to know who to trust. Wynne Kordas gives Nurse Alice an impish, otherworldly quality which is immediately intriguing.
When we finally meet the younger sister Miriam (Susan Earnshaw) she is something of a comic-tragic figure – wearing dowdy mismatched clothes which give off an air of one who does not get out much and has not seen much of life. Earnshaw invests her with all of the splendid oddness that such a character requires although she is always likeable. However, it comes as no surprise to us when Miriam is quite blasé in her admission that she did indeed help her father to shuffle off his mortal coil. With Nurse Alice now threatening to go to the police about this act of illicit euthanasia, scene two sees the two sisters negotiating a ‘settlement’ to silence the nurse, inevitably coming out of the inheritance money left predominantly to Annabel. There is so much humour and wit in the exchanges between the two sisters and this is perfectly played out by Henson and Earnshaw. A glass of wine in the garden to lubricate proceedings with the nurse turns into yet more misdeeds and whilst the slapstick increases momentarily so too does the pace of the piece.
There are many wonderful devices used within this scene which really help give it texture. The set itself (designed by Sarah Wynne Kordas) is a thing of magnificence in its own right. The garden setting is wonderfully eerie and the abandoned and overgrown tennis court sits menacingly in the corner of the stage. Every moment of action is captured beautifully by the clever use of light (Michael Donoghue) which seems to dim and brighten at crucial moments. The sound scape (David Gilbrook) transports you to a place where you do actually feel genuinely creeped out. It feels like things are escalating quite spectacularly and that we are witnessing a descent into something rather hellish and out of control. There are definitely devilish goings-on, but it isn’t entirely clear if they are from out of this world or not. Thank goodness for the interval and a chance to get out of the garden.
As scene three arrives our hearts are pumping that little bit faster as we fear for the welfare of the sisters. There is pain, tragedy and discussion about abuse which is played with a beautiful intimacy and when juxtaposed with all of the humour that has preceded this is particularly sensitively done by Earnshaw and Henson.
I won’t spoil the ending for you (you really have to see it for yourself – it is a beautiful piece of theatre) but suffice to say that Ayckbourn gives us all the twists and turns that you might hope for and a masterful exploration of the ways in which we are all haunted – if only perhaps, by the ghosts of our past.