Neil Dowden in north London
19 September 2022
Richard Eyre has had a distinguished career as a director of plays, musicals, operas, films, and TV drama, as well as running Nottingham Playhouse and the National Theatre, and writing several books. Now, at the grand age of 79, he is making his belated debut as a playwright (though he has adapted other writers for stage and screen before). The idea had been gestating for a while but he started writing The Snail House with time on his hands during the Covid lockdown. Unfortunately, although the play features a worthy discussion of important themes – including touching on topical issues such as Brexit, Covid, and the climate crisis – it is dramatically inert and never really springs to life.
Patrick Walshe McBride, Eva Pope, Vincent Franklin and Grace Hogg-Robinson.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The play revolves around a big birthday party for eminent paediatrician Sir Neil Marriot who has been knighted for his services as a government medical adviser during the pandemic. Many guests have been invited to a historic private school for dinner followed by speeches and dancing. But the celebration falls flat like the left-over champagne as family friction ruins the mood and a tragic misjudgement from his early professional career comes back to haunt him.
Sir Neil may have attained considerable success as a public figure, but it has come as a cost to his family who have had to pander to his ego. His long-suffering wife Val knows his self-centred chauvinism all too well, his son Hugo is a high-flying political adviser to the Conservative government but feels his father has never accepted his homosexuality, and his rebellious daughter Sarah has rejected his establishment position by leaving school and becoming an eco-warrior. Moreover, the event’s catering manager Florence has suffered deeply in the past because of Neil’s ambitious overconfidence in his court opinion on her baby’s injuries.
Eyre covers some hefty subject-matter involving dysfunctional family relationships, medical ethics, political divisions, institutionalized racism, and class and intergenerational conflict. There are stand-offs with traditionalist baby boomer pitted against woke millennial, public persona contrasted with personal relations, and interpretation differentiated from evidence. There is also an allusion to King Lear with Sarah, Cordelia-like, having “nothing” to say when called on to praise her father after dinner.
Vincent Franklin, Eva Pope, Patrick Walshe McBride and Grace Hogg-Robinson.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The trouble is that these conflicts on important matters tend to feel contrived rather than organic, with characters debating opposing ideas. It’s all a bit schematic and unconvincing. Val patly tells Neil he is a “Brilliant doctor, terrible husband”. And there is an unsatisfactory, soft resolution to the disputes between the characters.
There is obviously a danger in a playwright directing their own work in that they may be too close to it to see its flaws. And here Eyre’s rather cumbersome production does not help energize what is essentially an old-fashioned drama with contemporary references. Tim Hatley’s detailed design features oak panelled walls hung with portraits of Great White Men (though a Greta Thunberg photograph appears at the end) and a long table which is laboriously laid with crockery, glassware, and cutlery – and later unlaid – by the catering staff.
Vincent Franklin’s northern-accented Sir Neil Marriot is a proudly self-made man who belatedly tries to listen to alternative voices that question his complacent viewpoints. His biggest confrontation is with Grace Hogg-Robinson’s spikey Sarah who resents his previous lack of attention as well as his conventional views. Amanda Bright’s dignified Florence balances a quiet anger with a willingness to forgive as long as the perceived injustice done to her is recognized. Eva Pope is straight-talking, no-nonsense Val, while Patrick Walshe McBride’s Hugo is a sardonic snob. Megan McDonnell gives an amusing performance as bolshie Irish catering employee Wynona who wants to be an R&B singer, and Raphel Famotibe plays her colleague Habeeb who tells people who ask him where he’s from that he’s from Barking.