Nick Le Mesurier reviews Snake in the Grass at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, presented by the Bear Pit Theatre Company and directed by Lynda Lewis
This is the season for ghost stories. The ghost in Alan Ayckbourn’s Snake in the Grass is of a particularly malevolent kind. For an off-stage presence he wields considerable force, mainly in the minds of his two daughters, one of whom is clearly mad and the other not far off.
Snake in the Grass doesn’t so much chill as disturb. The story behind the haunting centres on the abuse over many years by an old man towards his children, particularly his youngest, Miriam (Alex Kapila). She has remained for years at home to look after him, surrendering her youth to his abuse, while her older sister Annabel (Rachel Alcock) fled the nest to become an alcoholic trapped in an abusive marriage. Miriam has become seriously deranged after so much sexual and physical torment. Not surprisingly, she has killed him.
All this happens offstage, related in the telling. Onstage we see the return of Annabel shortly after her father’s death. She has become the sole beneficiary of their father’s will, which has left Miriam penniless. The plot is complicated by the equally malign influence of the old man’s nurse, Alice Moody (Barbara Treen), who knows what Miriam did and tries to blackmail the sisters into a pay-out.
What makes this play so interesting is the focus on the minds of the two sisters, each a victim of a man’s brutality. It has its funny moments, but really it is a journey to a place where most of us would not want to go, though sadly many have. It is highly intelligent in its understanding.
I have to say there were some inconsistencies in the production I saw. A scene in which all the lights go out should have been played in near darkness. The acting was somewhat varied in quality, some of the actors seeming not quite comfortable in their lines and movements. Perhaps it was first night nerves. But then there were moments that lifted the performance to considerable heights. Rachel Alcock’s soliloquy in which she tells her sister why she submitted to her abuse was deeply moving: the audience responded with that kind of silence you get when it is absolutely hooked on every syllable. And Alex Kapila’s performance as Miriam was a tour de force in the mannerisms of insanity. Yes, it was over the top, but that was what was required, and she sustained it well, giving a relentless performance that flicked from child to malevolent killer in the blink of an eye. The part of Alice Moody requires a kind of arrogance and malicious stupidity which I felt Barbara Treen was at times struggling to find, though she triumphed in the end when her character enjoys a fleeting moment of triumph.
Snake in the Grass is as dark a gothic tale of horror as you’re likely to find, without the need for remote castles, clanking chains and monsters. This production, for all its inconsistencies, shows that true horror lies much closer at hand, and that’s what makes it frightening.
* Snake in the Grass runs until Saturday November 9. Visit www.thebearpit.org.uk to book.