Snake In The Grass: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Snake In The Grass at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2002. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Snake In The Grass
(by John Peter)
"For a man writing his 61st play, Alan Ayckbourn is in astonishingly high spirits. This one is a thriller; it is also a family play. It may also be a ghost story, though it would be wrong to give anything away. Annabel (Fiona Mollison), early forties, handsome, divorced, tough, comes back from Tasmania on her father's death to a series of surprises. Daddy has left everything to her. Daddy may also have been assisted in his departure by her younger sister, Miriam (Susie Blake), who seems to be on the scatty-fretful-naive side - but who knows?
Mollison is the elder sister from hell: superior and imperious, hiding long-nurtured resentments. When roused to indignation, which is often, she emits a short, harsh laugh like a thunderclap that could frighten horses a mile away. The two sisters are blackmailed by daddy's former nurse, Alice (Rachel Atkins), who says she has evidence. She has also, she says, been sacked by Miriam - and claims compensation. Daddy was, by all accounts, pretty ghastly: another of Ayckbourn's dreadful offstage parents.
The play could also be subtitled Sisterly Feelings. Only English women can have such loving-ratty-needy-bitchy feelings about each other, lasting well into old age and possibly beyond. These two seem united in their feelings about Alice, with ghastly consequences. Ten minutes into Act II, I thought I knew where Ayckbourn was going, but I was only half right: with this playwright, it never does to think you're a step ahead. A creepily, scarily, eerily enjoyable evening."
(Sunday Times, 9 June 2002)

Snake In The Grass (by Alfred Hickling)
"Alan Ayckbourn feels the urge to make people jump. In the early 1990s he interrupted a string of comedies to produce a one-act play called
Haunting Julia which, unusually for him, contained all-male characters and, even more unusually, a ghost. Snake In the Grass is a pendant to that piece, featuring three traumatised women in a ghostly garden.
The difference is that in
Haunting Julia the spooks were real, or at least as real as the props and sound departments could make them. At first Snake in the Grass looks suspiciously like a retread of the repertoire of theatrical ghost effects - wind chimes that play themselves, rocking chairs which rock unoccupied. It is as mysterious as a séance with an assistant stage manager under the table.
But, after a sluggish start, the play enters another dimension and becomes a far more subtle and powerful piece than the old ghost-thriller genre would seem to allow. All the requisite ingredients are here: a contested will, an attempted murder, a fortuitous power cut. But Ayckbourn reworks them to suggest that ghosts are really whatever it is that scares us the most, and raises uncomfortable questions about whether abusive love is preferable to no love at all.
The story features Annabel Chester, a failed, divorced businesswoman, who returns to the crumbling family pile following the death of her
father. At home she finds Miriam, her unmarried sister; Alice, an ex-nurse who now nurses her grievances; and something nasty on the tennis-court, where the deceased man would hurl tennis balls and abuse at his daughters.
Ayckbourn's own production is distinguished by three superlative performances from Fiona Mollison and Susie Blake as the estranged sisters and Rachel Atkins as the nurse who comes between them. They add real flesh to a play that at first seems a load of old bones. Yet as a ghost thriller,
Snake In the Grass surprisingly ends up having more in common with Hamlet than Gaslight."
(Plays International, July 2002)

Snake In The Grass
"Writing for women is not what made Alan Ayckbourn famous, but it has long been part of his legend. In the 1980s, A Woman in Mind [sic] made a tremendous impact just because Ayckbourn, this master-craftsman of comedy, was prepared to go so far into the domestic derangement of one particular woman. And what most stays in the mind from his 2001 triptych of plays - now grouped as Damsels in Distress and about to open at London's Duchess - is the degree to which one or more women are at the heart of each play.
Ayckbourn can be particularly acute when it comes to the way women feel about the way men treat them; but he also knows how to write for women when they are among themselves - as in his latest play,
Snake in the Grass, which is for three women only.
There is no better reason to see
Snake in the Grass than to see the performance by Susie Blake in the central role, Miriam. Along with her perfect timing, phrasing, and connection to her stage colleagues, she has bubbliness, impishness, and a certain perpetual inner childlike innocence. But she is way past childhood now, and the role of Miriam is like a gift. For Miriam is thwarted: the younger daughter who had to remain at home to tend a monstrous father. In this role, Blake shows us what she can be when her bubbliness is popped, when her impishness turns dangerous; and when her childlike innocence has withered in the bud. Sure, there is comedy here, and Blake delivers it wonderfully, but it all seems incidental to Ayckbourn's, or Miriam's, larger purpose.
Annabel and Miriam are sisters who have not met for 35 years. Annabel has lived abroad, has been married to a wife-beater and divorced, and more. Father is dead now, and the sisters meet again as Annabel returns to the family home. Yet the play has much else on its mind. It's a suspense drama about murder, blackmail, and haunting. The suspense is to do with whether the murder or murders, the blackmail, and the haunting are real and/or alleged and/ or faked.
But the whole play is less good than the role. Ayckbourn handles suspense like a master - well, he is a master - but not always freshly. Though I seldom saw the twists coming, they sometimes felt familiar when they came, and the ending felt trite. And his conversations don't always live in the line; this is sometimes one of those plays where dialogue feels like something Ayckbourn filled in at the last moment, like an insufficient covering of flesh upon his craftsmanship's skilful bones. As for Ayckbourn's direction, he has let the other two actors play too much on the surface. We soon tire of Fiona Mollison's downwardly mobile vocal inflections, her exaggeratedly classy heartiness, and especially her forced guffaws. Likewise the malicious gleam in Rachel Atkins's eye, her sinisterly toothy smile, her sly vocal insinuations. Although
Snake in the Grass is not among Ayckbourn's best plays, there is more depth and subtlety to it than these two reveal. More suspense, too."
(Financial Times, 6 August 2002)

Snake In The Grass (by Dave Windass)
"Alan Ayckbourn returns to the horror genre for his 61st play. He last visited the territory with
Haunting Julia - this production is that play's theatrical negative. Where the former had three male characters, here Fiona Mollison, Susie Blake and Rachel Atkins get to tease, thrill and chill the audience. They also get to induce laughter, for while Ayckbourn may be flirting with Edgar Allen Poe style storytelling, he is - and this is a blessing - unable to dispense fully with the comedy.
Atkins plays Alice Moody, a former nanny attempting to blackmail two sisters. That Blake's Miriam Chester is a schizophrenic character - suffering hysterical and melodramatic fits one moment and being higher than a kite the next - is a clue that this play will take some working out. The first half sets a conventional thriller-cum-horror tone, only for quirky twist upon twist to unravel after the interval.
Reading between the lines, Ayckbourn, who directs with his usual flair, has written a piece of work about inner demons. Mollison and Blake's characters reverse roles in the play, as the balance of power between the two shifts. The two actors enjoy these shifts in intensity, as their characters grapple with ghosts in their respective closets.
It is not the first time that the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round has been turned into an awe-inspiring garden by Roger Glossop - although he has made a misjudgment. A giant tree, a section of a tennis court fence and some Victorian lamps hamper sight lines on two sides of the auditorium. Otherwise there is not much to pick fault with. John Pattison's spine-tingling music is exceptional and would put the willies up Vlad the Impaler."
(The Stage, 13 June 2002)

Snake In The Grass (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Where there's a will, there's a war, in Alan Ayckbourn's new outdoor thriller.
When Miriam Chester's father dies, helped on his way by her quadrupling his pills and giving him "only a little push" down the stairs, could her action have been prompted by his changing his will in favour of her older, colder ex-pat sister Annabel: house, garden, tennis court, summer house and all?
Annabel (Fiona Mollison), suffering from a heart condition despite having no heart, has newly returned home from Tasmania, and in the sunlit, overgrown family garden, she finds not the outwardly batty Miriam (Susie Blake) but Alice Moody (Rachel Atkins), the nurse her sister sacked, the nurse who knows her sister's dark, deathly secret. She wants £100,000 hush money.
Once Miriam emerges, as if from the ether, in her wrongly-buttoned blouse, she decides all's well that ends in the well, drugging Alice and throwing her down the summerhouse watering hole.
So run the twists, turns and chicanery of Ayckbourn's 61st play, his first thriller since
Haunting Julia in 1994, again a three-hander, this time a trio of women, with bricks and mortar replaced by grass and branches, the outdoors becoming a meeting place of the natural, the unnatural and maybe the supernatural.
On one level
Snake In The Grass is a B-movie thriller with A-movie writing, nimbly staying one step ahead of the audience's guessing games, with tennis balls taking on a scariness not seen since Bjorn Borg was the ice-man terminator of Wimbledon and Ayckbourn adding suspense to his mastery of comic timing.
On another, altogether darker plane, beyond the humorous shlock and barbed wit, it is a dark, psychological horror story, where the ghosts that haunt Annabel and Miriam rise from their own past and in particular their dysfunctional relationship with their father and each other after their mother died.
Father had scared Annabel with his bullying determination that she should play tennis, and now she is dried up and dried out. He had abused Miriam, physically, sexually, scarring her emotionally for life.
Maybe deliberately, Blake's Miriam looks older than Mollison's Annabel, so deep are her mental scars, and likewise I'd swear the auditorium seemed colder than usual, giving Ayckbourn's serpentine production a suitably chill air.
No man, not even Willy Russell among contemporary British playwrights, writes better roles for and about women, and this time he has pulled off a union of Ibsen, Saki and Fay Weldon, wrapped in a Fifties B-movie."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 6 June 2002)

Ayckbourn With A Hint Of Venom (by Lynda Murdin)
"This season, Alan Ayckbourn doesn't test the limits of theatrical time and space by presenting two new plays at once in separate auditoria or three new plays with the same cast on the same set - as with
House & Garden and last year's Damsels in Distress. No, the playwright and SJT artistic director settles for a nice little thriller.
Or does he? His latest work - his 61st - is certainly billed as a thriller. Featuring three women, it is said to be a companion piece to his
Haunting Julia, a sort of ghost story he wrote eight years ago for three men.
It is a terrific piece - brilliant, bizarre and yet totally believable. But even though the slippery tale unfolds in relatively straightforward style, when watching it I couldn't help but feel our perceptions were once again being challenged. There was a paradox here between image and reality as, for example, in Magritte's painting of a pipe which states "This is not a pipe."
This is not a thriller. It has elements of a thriller in that a murder has taken place, blackmail is afoot and apparently supernatural phenomena are tinkling the wind chimes and rattling the fence. But you are far more likely to be grinning with enjoyment than gripped by fear, far more likely to be tantalised by the playwright's insights into the female psyche than to be tingling with suspense.
Snake in the Grass turns out to be a classic Ayckbourn comedy - but one in which the characteristic dark undercurrent has turned Ortonesque black. In fact, it's more than classic; it's close to the top of its class.
Fortunately, I'm not alone in questioning the attribution. Reading the programme notes later, I see Ayckbourn himself, while defending "the humble thriller", goes on to wonder whether this actually is his second ghost play.
Not in the conventional sense, he decides.
He justifies: "After all, most ghosts we encounter are not wailing nuns or headless monks. The phantoms lie within us, born out of a past that continues to haunt us; suppressed memories that grow into nightmares of our own imaginings as we lie awake in the darkness."
And so it is with Annabel (Fiona Mollison) and her sister, Miriam (Susie Blake). They are still haunted by their shared childhood history and their cruel and domineering father. Annabel escaped to Tasmania as soon as she was able, leaving Miriam to cope at home. Now the father has died and for the first time in many years, Annabel steps into the neglected garden of the family home. She is met by the father's nurse, Alice (an excellent Rachel Atkins, smiling insidiously) whom she thought had been dismissed by her sister. Alice shows her a letter written by the father shortly before he died. He informed her he had changed his will in favour of Annabel because he was convinced Miriam was trying to kill him. Alice wants £100,000 to keep quiet.
Annabel has returned to a very sticky situation, far more sticky than she ever guesses - although it must be said a few of the plot's twists are not beyond the audience's skills of prediction. That doesn't really matter because in some ways the plot is secondary, a vehicle through which we can observe the emotions of the sisters. Neither has fared well in their dealings with men.
We learn that the brisk and bossy Annabel was physically abused by her husband. Seemingly strong, she became an alcoholic, lost her business and now suffers from angina. Miriam remained a spinster, caring for her elderly father.
The SJT has in the past pleasingly overturned the conventional image of we spinsters - in
Larkin With Women. And here again this spinster is one who seems a stranger to secateurs, evensong and sensible vests, preferring a bottle of sauvignon. But, for all her apparent normality, is Miriam a sinister spinster?
Roger Glossop's verdant design, covering the Round's stage in grass and with branches hanging overhead, could win horticultural show awards for the spookiest garden. A word of warning, however: your view could be restricted if sit ting behind the interlocking wire fence
of the off stage tennis court.
And, although Ayckbourn, who directs makes skilled use of the space, a couple of incidents could be missed, depending on your position.
Mollison and Blake turn the sisters an exquisite double act, unfolding the characters' personal tragedies behind the mask of comedy. Mollison captures to perfection that sense of upper-class authority that seems to accompany grown women who feel no sense of the ridiculous when wearing an Alice band in their hair. Her voice is deep and gravely, her speeches frequently punctuated with a disconcerting - but very funny - Hah!
As for Blake, once again it is a joy to see her back at the SJT. Whatever the unusual course of action her character takes, Blake makes it seem perfectly sensible. And her mature ability to play the sulky little girl is far from reptilian."
Embrace this snake.
(Yorkshire Post, 12 June 2002)

Snake In The Grass (by Jeremy Kingston)
"Alan Ayckbourn's first play was produced in 1963, so if there is such a thing as a Ruby Jubilee he celebrates it next year, with Play Number Sixtysomething.
In the meantime, for Play No 61, he combines a thriller with a ghost story, each of which he's tried separately, if not often, and perhaps never before together. I say "perhaps" because I missed his
Haunting Julia eight years ago, which not only sounds as though it contained the ghostly element but is also a sort of mate to his new play.
Where the first had a cast of three men, the present one has three women; and where Julia was a daughter untimely dead,
Snake has a father whose fatal descent down an unlit staircase was evidently welcomed by those who knew him.
The setting is the garden of the house where his spinster daughter and a nurse cared for him in his vituperative last years. There is a spread of grass, steps to a summerhouse, the fence surrounding an overgrown tennis court and a monkey puzzle.
There is no visible snake - or rather, not the reptilian sort - but humankind can be just as poisonous when the financial stakes are high. There is also a rocking chair, which in ghost stories can only mean trouble, and sure enough it occasionally rocks of its own accord.
But as Ayckbourn points out, phantoms really lie within us, "born out of a past that continues to haunt us", and both Miriam and her elder sister Annabel are so haunted.
Annabel (Fiona Mollison) escaped the family home for a life in the Antipodes but still dare not step on to the tennis court, where Something Nasty happened.
She may look svelte and superior but her sharp explosive laughs suggest that phantoms are still at work. Miriam (Susie Blake) seems crushed by a lifetime's disappointment, just the sort of apprehensive mouse to be paralysed by Rachel Atkins's Alice, the creepily polite nurse who laces her blackmail threats with horrid little gulps of laughter.
But since this is also a thriller we would be foolish to accept that all is what it seems. It certainly does look as though a drugged body is shoved down a convenient well, and Ayckbourn plays fairly fair with clues. He also writes one excellent line that conveys exactly what has just happened offstage, though it consists of the single word, "Whoops."
This is a minor piece, however, and lovers of old French horror movies may even find the plot rather familiar. Nicely acted and some good lines: "I've told you I can't eat large eggs," is vintage Ayckbourn, but "No one's a born loser," hints at the harsher areas the genre prevents him exploring further."
(The Times, 15 June 2002)

Snake In The Grass (by Dominic Cavendish)
"David Hare observed in a Hay Festival lecture last week that Alan Ayckbourn is the only playwright in the country to be "anywhere near the centre of policy of a decent-sized theatre". What Hare didn't go on to say, but I feel should be said, having seen Sir Alan's amusing but distinctly middling latest, is this: isn't he squandering the opportunities his rare position gives him?
The Stephen Joseph Theatre's remit champions a mix of classics and new writing, but one name crops up time after time on the posters: that of the SJT's top dog. Of the six main in-house productions last year, four were by Ayckbourn. If locals want an alternative to
Snake in the Grass this summer, they'll have to make do with a revival of his 1978 comedy Joking Apart, which joins the rep in July.
With his (self-directed) opus no 61, Ayckbourn has had a crack at a spooky thriller - a species of entertainment he thinks most of us too embarrassed to admit enjoying. It's not snobbery, however, that makes the suspenseful play such an uncommon phenomenon, but the fact that it's fiendishly hard to create an atmosphere of threat by theatrical means.
In this all-female three-hander, Annabel returns to her family pile after years abroad to be confronted in the garden (a lush, attractive design from Roger Glossop) by her late father's ex-nurse. The latter informs her that Annabel's younger sister Miriam did away with the old man, that she's got proof and that she wants £ 100,000 to keep quiet.
Old sibling rivalries bubble to the surface as Annabel and the guilty Miriam ponder what to do next. The blackmailer's body is soon hurtling down a well, but all does not end there.
It's probably scarier if you don't guess the twist - which stared me in the face halfway through (did I mention that Annabel has a dicky ticker and stands to inherit the house?) - but, even so, the unexpected rattlings of tennis-court mesh-fence are more likely to set your teeth on edge than to send shivers down your spine.
The chief pleasure lies in the acting - Fiona Mollison's horsey, harrumphing Annabel, Susie Blake's dotty, immoral Miriam and Rachel Atkins's creepily composed nurse all serve the comically brittle exchanges well.
The chief question this patchy effort leaves you with, though, is whether Ayckbourn will ever put himself out to grass or at least allow his creative urges to lie fallow for a year or so."
(Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2002)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.