Snake In The Grass, Print Room, London

Reviewed by Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture

Last November, Lucy Bailey launched the wonderfully stylish and welcoming Print Room with a piece of bold programming: the English premiere of Fabrication, a baroque Oedipal rarity for the stage by the film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Why then has she jumped from this to Alan Ayckbourn? Is there something about his 2002 play Snake in the Grass – one of his Things That Go Bump trilogy – that demands urgent rescue from underestimation?

The short answer is no. This is, to my mind, Ayckbourn at his near-worst: joky-sinister pseudo-spookiness coupled with flatpack feminism. Bailey and team certainly give it the works in this excellent traverse staging. Designer William Dudley has created a creepily atmospheric defunct tennis court, replete with an eerie umpire's chair and bathed in the faintly unnerving hazy radiance of Richard Howell's splendid lighting design.

After 35 years abroad, failed, divorced businesswoman Annabel Chester (Susan Wooldridge) returns to the crumbling family pile to discover that her unmarried sister Miriam (superb Sarah Woodward) has murdered their abusive father and is being blackmailed by his unashamedly common former nurse (Mossie Smith). What follows is, for my taste, a gratingly spurious mix of comedy caper and dubious psychology (is love really at the bottom of all abuse – do some men not just hit out at the nearest available object?) Woodward's Miriam, excellent in her watchful intensity and pissed-off sinister insistence, demands that she and her sister swap ghost stories about the past. But they are ghost stories metaphorically only, though the long set-piece reminiscences, very well written, put the rest of the palaver to shame.

To say precisely why the play strikes me as bogus would entail giving away the "twist". Suffice it to say that anyone with an ounce of nous will see it coming a mile off. Snake in the Grass is beneath the man who wrote the genuinely great feminist play Woman in Mind.

To 5 March (0844 477 1000)