Theatre

‘The Snail House’ review – Birthday bash goes big with a small message

★★★

Richard Eyre’s first original play The Snail House lives up to its name with its slow pacing towards a point which feels flat and familiar. A birthday party for government scientific advisor Sir Neil Marriot (Vincent Franklin) soon descends into a political argument among family members, but the case for everyone ‘just getting along’ and making concessions from time to time is tired two hours later.

Equally tired are the stereotypes applied to the younger characters. There’s caterer Wynona (Megan McDonnell) with an affinity for singing the likes of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and The Supremes’ Stop! In the Name of Love” at any available opportunity to the point it’s not even funny, just unnecessary and irritating. Fellow staff member Habeeb (Raphel Famotibe), at one point, expresses his desire to become the next Elon Musk, while one of the more central characters, daughter Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), is a fervent climate activist. Naturally, she loves Greta Thunberg and backs Extinction Rebellion, but comes with a level of self-righteous and resentment for the rest of her family. It’s when she’s asked to give a speech at the party that things get a bit more dramatic.

As if the teasing from her posh, Tory special advisor brother Hugo (Patrick Walsh McBride) wasn’t enough. As a result of his larger than life persona, he is able to secure a few cheap laughs, but joins the rest of the younger characters in lacking any level of meaningful depth or development. For a play which seems to make the case for compromise and bridging political divides, falling into cheap clichés in a way which presents these individuals as grating, annoying or insensitive doesn’t exactly endear us to them or this argument.

It may well be that any potential warming towards Sarah or Hugo by the end of the play is the main objective – a plea to see beyond first impressions – but it doesn’t have the primary focus. That falls to the third and final caterer, Florence (Amanda Bright), who was wrongly accused of shaking her baby in a court case which saw Sir Neil summoned as the prosecution expert. This revelation, alongside Sarah’s speech preparation, are the only two main plot points of note at the end of Act One. The rest is largely redundant, with the character of Val (Eva Pope) tragically underused as she ends every other sentence with ‘love’ and almost leaves the party altogether.

One of the handful of frustrations created by The Snail House is that it hints at some curious ideas, but they simply do not take up the two-hour duration to develop to their full potential. Hugo and Sarah, despite being at other ends of the political spectrum, bond over a rendition of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (yes, there’s more singing), in a tender moment which suggests anecdotes and music can transcend sociopolitical differences. The opportunity for the play to explore bonding despite contrasting ideas was there, but Eyre is slow to take this up.

It could well have been a play centring on Sir Neil’s reluctance to accept he made a mistake, if such a mistake was introduced from the outset. The idea of politicians and otherwise politically active individuals struggling to concede or change our minds is ripe for exploration, but here, it is relegated to the final moments of the script, and even then, it’s hardly an admission from Neil, as he continues to remain as stubborn as he was for the rest of the play. There are moments of curious conversation, but on the whole, The Snail House overdoes it on dialogue. Its story wants us to embrace change, but hardly does so itself.

The Snail House is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until 15 October. Audio described and captioned performances are scheduled for 8 and 12 October respectively.


Production Images: Manuel Harlan.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Snail House’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for the above article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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