THE prolific inventiveness of Alan Ayckbourn is constant – and constantly remarkable. Snake In The Grass, chosen as IES’s autumn production, is that rarity among the Ayckbourn canon – a ghostly psychological chiller.
The Scarborough-based dramatist, who is said to be the world’s most frequently produced playwright, has, over a career spanning more than 40 years, tackled every sort of scenario and setting, from farce to sci-fi, musical pastiche to Christmas comedy, domestic comedies and dark near-future dramas, putting multi-storey sets on stage, shifting time and place and testing the stagecraft of actors and set-builders to the limit..
The 2002 three-hander Snake In The Grass followed his first ghost play, Haunting Julia (1994), and with Life And Beth formed a trilogy called Things That Go Bump, produced together in 2008.
Things certainly go bump in the garden of the Chester sisters, united after many years apart, following the death of their domineering father who, we gradually realise, was cruelly abusive in physical, psychological and sexual ways.
He treated Annabel (Jo Neagle) as a boy, endlessly bombarding her with tennis balls and exposing her lack of manly sporting skills. She got away as fast as she could but her marriage ended in violence and abuse.
Blonde younger sister Miriam (Felicity Forester) has stayed at home, caring for their father, her horizons shrinking from youthful dreams to middle aged frustration.
In his final illness he has been nursed by Alice Moody (Maddie Lowe), a calculating and greedy woman who is blackmailing Miriam, revealing, to Annabel’s horror, that she murdered their father. But Annabel already has her own demons to deal with – a serious heart condition and a growing fear of strange noises and bouncing balls on the tennis court beside the dilapidated old house.
When the play was first staged, the Sunday Times described it as “creepily scary and enjoyable” and that is true, but far more importantly it is a powerful insight into the damage suffered by abused women – girls, daughters and wives – and the way such abuse can haunt and deform the psyche.
There are all the familiar horror tropes – weird noises, unexplained lights going on and off, spine-tingling storytelling in the small hours, a body emerging from a watery grave …
But how much is this supernatural, and how much is it the scarred torment in the minds of these damaged women?
Director Lyn Lockyer, who had barely six weeks rehearsal for this taut and provocative production, has a brilliant cast, each playing their multi-layered parts to perfection.
It is strange that this play is not performed more often by amateur groups, offering as it does such meaty parts for women of “un certain age” – here it is given a powerful production, on a clever and well-lit set.
The three actresses give exceptional and nuanced performances, piling on the tension as motivations and buried experiences are unravelled. The production continues to Saturday 22nd October.