Review by Daz Gale
The beautiful Hampstead Theatre is currently home to a world premiere, and this one makes a first. The former Artistic Director of the National Theatre and a regular adaptor of other peoples works, The Snail House marks Richard Eyre’s first completely original play. It might have taken him a while to get here but will slow and steady win the race?
Set in the present day, The Snail House sees Sir Neil Marriot (Vincent Franklin), who became familiar to the country from his TV appearances as a government medical advisor during the pandemic, throwing himself a lavish birthday party following a knighthood he received. As he reunites with his family, differing opinions come to light with the wildly varied members of his family causing them to be at each others throats. Just your everyday family drama… until you throw in an unexpected twist regarding the catering staff.
The writing feels very disjointed with a pacing problem leading to a far more inconsistent second act as opposed to a sturdier act 1. You get the feeling like Richard Eyre has tried to cram too much in to the show with two many different strands of plot weaving in and out, leaving none of them completely fleshed out and characters underused and underwritten. You get the feeling that a less is more approach would have made this show a lot more impactful, as when it is good, it’s very good.
The strongest storyline comes from the unexpected history between Neil and caterer Florence (Amanda Bright). When the true nature of their relationship comes to the light, it leads to the more interesting of the scenes among the play. However, it has to fight for time alongside other stories that never quite land the way they should. Neil’s daughter Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson) sometimes feels like a stereotypical amalgamation of what an older generation perceive a “woke” teenager to be like, and while there is genuine merit to her words, the dialogue feels unnatural and never quite lands. Similarly, the clear trauma of Neils gay son Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride) is merely touched upon and never quite explored. Then there’s the matter of Val (Eva Pope) who is given a complete disservice as the severely underused and essential spare part of Neils wife.
Themes such as climate change and Brexit are hinted at but never quite explored in great detail, with the dynamic between Neil and his daughter Sarah longing for more exposition. Having plays referencing the pandemic felt inevitable given a certain amount of time, and having Neil play a part during the pandemic leads to some interesting moments, one in particular sees a debate over herd immunity and Neil wanting to sacrifice pensioners over the economy. Given the actions of our beloved Government, this is one of the more captivating aspects of dialogue but is sadly glossed over almost immediately as the subject changes to yet another new strand of story.
The cast are all fantastic in their roles and make the most of the parts they are given. The standout is undoubtedly Amanda Bright who surprises with an emotive and authentic character journey as Florence. Megan McDonnell gets comedic moments as caterer Wynona and gets to show off a sensational singing voice, though at times feels like she is in a completely different show to everyone else. Vincent Franklin is brilliantly brash as Neil, with Eva Pope, Grace Hogg-Robinson and Patrick Walshe McBride giving a dysfunctional family dynamic which leads to some interesting scenes, even if they are never played out to their full potential. Special mention to Raphel Famotibe who makes the most of his limited time on stage but is criminally underused.
As well as writing, Richard Eyre also directs the action which all takes place in one room of the party. The use of sound designed by John Leonard brilliantly uses effects of the chatter from the other rooms of the party, while the subtle tweaks between acts signposting that this is taking place before and then after the main meal is an inspired touch. Set design by Tim Hatley is full of intricate details with a great use of lighting from Hugh Vanstone. Not every choice works though – the use of music throughout the play often feels shoehorned in and never quite necessary, none more so than the drunken singalong to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ providing a cringeworthy moment.
The Snail House is a show with a lot of potential. When it gets things right, you see the idea of where this show was going. However, there is too many different elements thrown together which create a messy narrative, all of which have varied degrees of success. Had it focused on a couple of the storylines rather than throw as much as possible to the wall to see what sticked, the outcome would have been very different. Rather fittingly considering the title of the play, it is an extreme slow burn to begin with and seems to take a long time to get where it needs to go. Sadly, when it does get there, it proves all too unsatisfying and leaves you wanting more.
The Snail House plays at Hampstead Theatre until October 15th. Tickets from https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/
Photos by Manuel Harlan