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The Snail House at Hampstead Theatre

At the heart of the play is a question about whether Neil Marriott (Vincent Franklin) should apologise for something that he did not believe to be a correct decision based on what he knew at the time. In one sense, taken to its logical conclusion, there would be no end to various apologies that would have to be made for past mistakes. Sir Neil, an eminent paediatrician, and self-declared expert, had once testified against Florence Adebayo (Amanda Bright) but (without giving all the details away) her conviction was quashed on appeal, thanks to various other medical opinions. Sir Neil was a medical advisor to HM Government during the pandemic: make of that what you will.

The Snail House - BACK EVA POPE FRONT L- R PATRICK WALSHE MCBRIDE, VINCENT FRANKLIN, GRACE HOGG-ROBINSON © Manuel Harlan.
The Snail House – BACK EVA POPE FRONT L- R PATRICK WALSHE MCBRIDE, VINCENT FRANKLIN, GRACE HOGG-ROBINSON © Manuel Harlan.

It’s a busy narrative, with everything set in a public school, one of those that has plush facilities in the first place and then makes even more money by making their spaces available for hire outside term time. Sir Neil has his reasons for hosting a milestone birthday party there: it’s where he sent his son to school, and where he would have sent his daughter had she not insisted on attending a state comprehensive. The play’s action takes place in the dining hall: fortunately or unfortunately the audience is spared the small talk of the dinner itself. Beyond the extra costs in having an ensemble on stage to play miscellaneous dinner guests, the production provides opportunities for the audience to get to know the seven on-stage characters reasonably well, without being encumbered by too many sub-plots. But, rather frustratingly, such opportunities aren’t seized on nearly as thoroughly as they could be.

That said, there are, in effect, no minor characters here. Sir Neil’s wife Val (Eva Pope) is a long-suffering spouse, while his grown-up children, Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride) and Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), are respectively a political advisor and a political activist. There are a couple of catering assistants working under Florence, Wynona (Megan McDonnell) and Habeeb (Raphel Famotibe) – both are twenty. She harbours ambitions of making it big as a singer, he is a student helping his mother’s catering business out – they are, taken together, a little like a comedy duo, with Wynona’s forthrightness and Habeeb’s more relaxed approach balancing one another out.

There’s sufficient tension to make this a watchable family drama, but it feels like something that’s been done before. Hugo flounces about flamboyantly as though every Young Gay Man acts like him, but as he holds down a job, and a high-profile one at that, it makes Sir Neil’s dismissals, made to Sarah, about the younger generations that apparently don’t actually do anything with their lives, all the more bizarre and inept. The play ticks miscellaneous boxes, delving briefly and therefore only at surface level, on issues like homophobia and racism, but even the second-half discussion about a previous court case that went wrong seemed rushed and somewhat superficial.

The pandemic and politics, given Sir Neil and Hugo’s jobs, are woefully underexplored. This isn’t problematic for now, at a time when people have had more than their fair share of both, but it makes the play unlikely to be one to stand the test of time. Having the playwright direct his own play perhaps wasn’t the best move, depriving the production of a different perspective, even if he did (as the programme asserts) ask the actors for their input throughout the creative process. The cast do well with what they are given, but the play itself is too broad in its scope and offers little in the way of perceptive insight into any of the miscellaneous topics it raises.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Sir Neil Marriot had a ‘good pandemic’, becoming familiar to millions from his TV appearances as a government medical advisor. His service even earned him a knighthood, and he is now rewarding himself with a lavish birthday party in the hallowed surroundings of his son’s alma mater. But, amidst the oak panelling, the champagne and the silver service, his family are at one another’s throats again, and he thinks there’s something familiar – and somehow unsettling – about one of the catering staff…

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER & DIRECTOR RICHARD EYRE
DESIGNER TIM HATLEY
LIGHTING HUGH VANSTONE
LIGHTING ASSOCIATE SAM WADDINGTON
SOUND JOHN LEONARD
SOUND ASSOCIATE ALI TAIE
CASTING GINNY SCHILLER CDG
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR JESSICA MENSAH

CAST
FLORENCE – AMANDA BRIGHT
HABEEB – RAPHEL FAMOTIBE
NEIL – VINCENT FRANKLIN
SARAH – GRACE HOGG-ROBINSON
WYNONA – MEGAN MCDONNELL
VAL – EVA POPE
HUGO – PATRICK WALSHE MCBRIDE

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
THE SNAIL HOUSE
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY RICHARD EYRE

Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU.
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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