by Alan Ayckbourn.
Union Theatre 204 Union Street SE1 0LX 3-14 January 2012.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876 (no booking fee).
www.ticketsource.co.uk (with booking fee).
Review: Timothy Ramsden 21 December.
Acid under a comic skin, generally well captured.
One of the girlfriends Brian brings to his employer Richard and Anthea’s house at this play’s four-yearly intervals draws their lawn with a snake included. “A grass-snake?” she’s asked. “A snake in the grass,” she replies. And 24 years later Alan Ayckbourn produced a play called Snake in the Grass, a sinister comedy set – like Joking Apart – on the lawn of an old suburban house with tennis-court attached.
This earlier (1978) play’s more purely humorous, but comic purity generally brings tension in Ayckbourn; more accurately, the sinister side is less developed here. Yet Hugh and Louise, the vicar and his wife, have in a sense been displaced by Richard and Anthea, who have bought the rambling old rectory while the clerical couple live in a newer, smaller place next door.
Nice as could be – at Anthea’s suggestion, Richard knocks-down the fence so their neighbours can take a short-cut through their old house – their charm can become offensive. As Richard’s business partner Sven warns, these lovely people take over your life.
He should know; Richard ends up inadvertently knocking Sven’s self-confidence, and that takes some doing. The hosts at these gatherings – set between 1970 and 1982, with reports of offstage offspring at various stages of development (nothing defines the middle-class better than their comments about their children) – receive the most clearly ‘Ayckbourn’ performances, particularly Claire Marlowe’s ever-smiling, good-willed, cheerful Anthea, though Jamie Kenna’s Richard, while less prominent in assertive good will, captures Richard’s situation as the man who has all the luck – and skill – without appearing to realise it.
Other characters are played more variably in Ben De Wynter’s revival, though Andrew Obeney is quietly comic and consistently impressive as the Finnish Sven, so clear-sighted about others, so obtuse about himself, and therefore dismissive of the genuine concern shown over the years by Charlotte Moore’s Olive.
For all the activity Ayckbourn provides, there are some static moments here, but (like The Print Room recently with Snake in the Grass) the Union shows Ayckbourn can succeed on the fringe as well as in the West End and reps.
Richard: Jamie Kenna.
Anthea: Claire Marlowe.
Sven: Andrew Obeney.
Olive: Charlotte Moore.
Hugh: Jamie Richards.
Louise: Monica Bertei.
Brian: Paul Anthoney.
Mo/Mandy/Melody/Debby: Antonia Reid.
Director: Ben De Wynter.
Designer: Holly Best.
Lighting: Steve Miller.
Costume: Kingsley Hall.