Neil (Vincent Franklin) is a drawn-from-the-headlines doctor, rewarded with a knighthood for services during the pandemic. He has gathered family and friends to celebrate his achievements on his 55th birthday. The Snail House begins with the zero-hour catering staff, Wynona (Megan McDonnell) and Habeeb (Raphel Famotibe), setting up dinner in his son’s old private school – with lovely set design from Tim Hatley.
Neil’s family are not so onboard with all this. Eldest, Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride), is a right-wing spad who suggests that his father isn’t very accepting of his sexuality. Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), is semi-estranged from the family – by choice. She is a member of Extinction Rebellion and unfortunately that is her single defining aspect. Neil’s long suffering wife Val (Eva Pope) appears caught in the middle between everyone. Bits about her background – class, giving up her nursing job and her husband’s infidelity – are touched upon briefly and then swept away. Early mentions of the pandemic and division over herd immunity and lockdowns go nowhere, existing mainly as shouted punchlines to tedious family arguments. That is before they even mention Brexit. Not such a happy family. The cast do their best in what are thankless roles, with their characters being barely more than caricature with murky one-note motivations.
Neil has a past connection to Florence (Amanda Bright) who is a last minute replacement as catering manager. What happened here? Was this introduction deliberate to give Florence the opportunity to confront Neil? There remain many questions for what turns out to be a central component of the play. Was Florence going to say anything or did Sarah’s Googling bring the topic to a head? Whilst none of this is clear, Bright manages to give Florence a quiet dignity that stands out in contrast to the shrillness around.
At one point, Sarah asks “What about Billy’’, and there is a pause as they are clearly meant to be reflecting on Billy. I have no idea who Billy is – there is no Billy in the play and no prior mention of Billy! There might be a line to infer that he was/is a previous patient of Neil’s, but if so I’m not sure the intent was to have me scouring the playtext afterwards trying to figure out if I was frustrated because I had missed something or because the play had.
There are a couple of moments of real warmth, oddly both driven by music. Wynona and Habeeb singing The Supremes as they set the table is an example. Then in the one moment where we see a real and warm connection between the siblings, they drunkenly let loose on Don’t Look Back In Anger as it drifts through from the party next door.
The Snail House is unrealistic throughout, and in the simplest of things too. Minutes after dancing drunk on a table, Hugo is not just driving home but asking for and getting the keys to move another car out of the way first. The zero hour contract staff are rude and hostile to the professor before they are even paid. When Sarah insists Neil apologise to Florence he has to pay and tip her and … nothing is done with this. There isn’t a moment of embarrassment on either side or anything at all subtle, it just sits there flatly.
It’s not clear that The Snail House knows what it is trying to be. It touches on many topics but gives none of them time or respect to play out. There are odd moments of connection and enjoyment, but it is largely confusing and in need of refinement.
Written & Directed by: Richard Eyre
Set Design by: Tim Hatley
The Snail House plays at Hampstead Theatre until 15 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.