OPERA: Speaks without forked tongue

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The Independent Culture
Snake in the Grass

Old Vic, London

Although it opens with a well-observed scene of petty one-upmanship amongst an amateur choir after a rehearsal of Haydn's Creation, the last play by the late Roy MacGregor has meatier topics in mind. The healing power of music, nature versus nurture, hidden memories, class, child abuse... with all those ideas bubbling below the surface, you can't accuse him of shying away from contemporary issues. His chosen style, however, is anything but modern. The title and several scenes from could have been lifted straight out of a standard issue family drama, but there's a Nineties skeleton lurking in this Fifties cupboard.

Choir conductor and family man Edward Sliddon (John Normington) is to be honoured by the good citizens of the West Country town of Hazlitt Heath for his artistic services to the community, but, unbeknown to him, his ex-pupil and subsequent ex-con Ray Lucas has returned after 30 years. Ray is biding his time, shacking up with and working for brother and sister Kenny and Shirley at the local garage, but his harboured vengeance comes to the fore when he gatecrashes Edward's award ceremony and shocks the assembled townsfolk by revealing the musician's secret past.

We are, however, not immediately privy to the nature of the revelation as MacGregor cuts the scene before the climax. This wobbly structural conceit is designed to up the dramatic stakes but when, two scenes later, our suspicions of child abuse are confirmed, sadly it doesn't come as a shock. MacGregor delays the revelation in order to build character but it weakens the play. Despite his intentions of painting a group portrait of opposing positions and mixed motives, it descends into a "did he or didn't he?" scenario.

He is not helped by a production that is faithful to the late author but leadenly paced. Class divisions are overemphasised but Dominic Dromgoole's direction does little to lighten them or to give the script texture. The cumbersome design also labours the Ibsen-like naturalism and the combination leads to some frankly melodramatic blocking of the "speeches abreast of the sofa" variety.

Casting Kevin Whately against type as Ray must have seemed like an answer to all this. It is not his fault, but when you've learnt to love him as Inspector Morse's long-suffering sidekick Lewis, his grungy and disaffected acting only serves to make you constantly aware of the casting rather than fleshing out the character. Conversely, Saira Todd, a familiar TV face who usually plays fragile and brittle, nicely conveys Shirley's warmth and passion under pressure.

Anna Weiss, Mike Cullen's intense but deeply flawed Traverse Theatre hit at the Edinburgh Festival was similarly concerned with allegations of abuse, but the play's strength was the way in which it confounded your expectations. Initially structured as a thriller about whether or not a father committed the crime, it cleverly turned into a more complex, albeit misogynist, investigation into something deeper: the perils and power of "recovered" memory. MacGregor's oddly diffuse play, alas, rarely grasps its subject so dramatically.

Sundays and Mondays to 3 Nov, Old Vic, Waterloo Rd, London SE1 (0171- 928 7616)

David Benedict

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