The Snail House, Hampstead Theatre, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama

‘The Snail House’ review

Richard Eyre’s very belated debut play is an overblown generational satire


Time Out says

After a lifetime of directing and adapting the works of others, 79-year-old grandee of British theatre Richard Eyre comes out swinging with his first ever original play. In its two-hour run time, ‘The Snail House’ grapples with the pandemic, Brexit, class ladders and divides, the generation gap, medical ethics and morality. There is a lot going on here. But it’s not a good sign when you find yourself more engrossed in watching the cast set a long banquet table fully from scratch.

The play centres on a birthday party thrown, in his own honour, by Sir Neil Marriot (Vincent Franklin), an esteemed paediatrician whose role as advisor to the British government during the pandemic has earned him a knighthood. He’s accompanied by his exasperated wife Val (Eva Pope) and his dysfunctional duo of kids: Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride), a right-wing-skewing, gay, brittle, bon viveur of a civil servant, and Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), angry, still recovering from a breakdown and a staunch supporter of Extinction Rebellion.

We watch as the four of them spectacularly fail to communicate at any level, during the run-up to – and after – the party, which happens off-stage. At the same time, sarky waiters-for-hire Wynona (Megan McDonnell) and Habeeb (Raphael Famotibe) pop in and out of the set’s oak-panelled dining room – watched over by a bank of portraits of dusty white professors – to take well-deserved pot-shots at this largely awful family. Meanwhile, catering manager Florence (Amanda Bright) reveals she has a traumatic past with Sir Neil.

There’s some interesting material here, from Sir Neil’s insistence on his working-class roots – while simultaneously bullying his children in the opposite direction – to where the line is between scientific ‘fact’ and opinion, and how our sense of empathy is determined by our social status and our assumptions about others. There are good performances: Bright gives an affectingly quiet dignity and integrity to Florence, while a charismatic McBride has a ball with Hugo, spinning his lines into a sort of knowingly gleeful awfulness. He brings a lightness that this production desperately needs at times.

There’s a weirdness at the heart of this play. While it presents that age-old dramatic trope of a clash of values, it often feels like it keeps them at arms-length. Sarah, in particular, draws the short straw. There’s a lot of scope for valid criticism of someone from wealth sanctimoniously adopting a lifestyle because they have the privilege to do so. But Eyre writes her (and directs Hogg-Robinson) so annoyingly, hectoringly, one-note, it just feels like propaganda against Greta Thunberg.

And for a play so interested in the ‘now’, there’s something so old-fashioned in its staging. When Val accuses Florence of sleeping with Sir Neil, does she try to fire her? Nope. When Florence tells Wynona her secret, does she hold back a pretty crucial bit of information until the play wants her to share it for dramatic effect? Yes. As demonstrated by their arguments, the characters rarely behave organically, awkwardly hanging around scenes like agonised chess pieces until their next required move. This wouldn’t matter as much if they were obviously intended as overblown parodies, but no: Eyre is painfully clear that he’s making Serious Points.    


£12-£39.50. Runs 2hr
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