By Patrick Neylan
You’ve got to admire Alan Ayckbourn, even if you belong to the significant cadre of theatregoers who regard his work as hackneyed village-hall fodder. Back in 1979, Peter Hall described him as “one of the most talented … richest dramatists in the world”, but even then his plays were starting to be seen as too comfortable, complacent and predictable and much of his 80s work has dated badly.
Yet 2001 saw a move away from the trivial anxieties of the middle class nuclear family. We saw criminality and genuine violence in his ‘Role Play’ on the BLT stage four years ago, and the following year’s Snake In The Grass showed another side to Ayckbourn’s 21st century artistic resurgence. Gone were the fretting housewives and ineffectual husbands called Miles or Giles; in their place were frumpy Miriam and her spiky older sister Annabel in a thriller-cum-ghost story, which has proved one of Ayckbourn’s more popular late plays and made for a compelling June bar show.
We find Miriam (Heather Wain) in the garden of the house where she has spent decades caring for her late father. A difficult, emotionally abusive character, he has left his daughter scarred and cowed. Into this garden comes Annabel (Debbie Hedges), returned after decades in Australia to collect the inheritance Miriam thinks should have been hers. But before this drama can be played out, the sisters are interrupted by the arrival of the father’s former nurse Alice (Maxine Edwards); sacked by Miriam and now intent on revenge through blackmail, claiming that the old man had been done in by his not-so-loving daughter.
In terms of plot, the play progresses simply enough. Unable to meet Alice’s demands, Miriam poisons the nurse’s wine and her body is disposed of…
(Readers who missed the show might ponder how a corpse can be dumped down a well in the BLT bar, wondering if they need to watch their step should they over-indulge the bar’s wares in future. Fear not: the well was cunningly built into the back porch by Tony Jenner, with the plunge achieved with adroit athleticism by Maxine.)
…whereupon Annabel, her weak heart already stressed by blackmail threats, witnessing a murder and then telling the story of her abuse at the hands of her father and later her husband, is left alone. Terrified by the sound of daddy’s disembodied voice and beset by a mysterious barrage of tennis balls, of which she has a not-entirely-convincing phobia, she finally sees Alice re-emerge from the well, bringing on a fatal heart attack.
The voices, of course, were just a recording: Annabel was always the intended victim and Alice and Miriam are now free to live happily ever after on the inheritance. Alice goes to switch on the outdoor lights, and a zap and a flash later Miriam has the house and money all to herself. And then father’s voice is heard calling “Miriam, Miriam…”
Director Nikki Packham assembled an impressive cast who adeptly showcased one of Ayckbourn’s less celebrated talents: the empathetic portrayal of stressed and oppressed women.
Heather’s portrayal of Miriam progresses believably from repressed spinster to murderer, manipulator and maniac. She veers out of control and then chillingly back, such that the audience is never quite sure where, if anywhere, on the broad spectrum of insanity her character falls. Debbie, equally artfully, goes in the opposite direction. Annabel crumbles from an assured woman who has thrown off her past to make her way in the world to a frightened girl whose control was only ever a veneer and whose past stalked her to the uttermost ends of the earth – and back.
Maxine’s character of Alice the housekeeper was more grounded; her motives seemingly clear and her mercenary intent unclouded by psychology. Playing a simpler game, she exploited the sisters’ weaknesses while leaving space to make her transformation into Miriam’s partner in crime plausible. Despite her hard edge, there was enough naïveté to allow the sham poisoning to look real, and make her a believable victim of Miriam’s final trick.
We don’t normally get sophisticated sets in the bar, so the battered old porch with the old well was a rare treat, with scraps of foliage and netting making the dilapidated tennis court a sombre and spooky setting, while Jess Jenner’s subdued lighting provided a shade where imaginary ghosts could lurk, complete with self-rocking chair and self-propelled tennis balls.
Ultimately, even if the ghost story never really got going, the audience was presented with a thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller.