The set (by Tim Hatley) is absolutely beautiful in this much anticipated, new original play from celebrated theatre director Richard Eyre, giving a sense of occasion and opulence. Portraits look on in the private school room, wooden surfaces hold the marks of a long history.
As northern paediatrician Neil Marriott (Vincent Franklin) celebrates his knighthood with a dinner and dance, his wife (Eva Pope), children and those brought in to serve each have their own stories – too many stories in fact fot a running time of under 2 hours.
With a woke daughter and XR activist Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), a gay son and Cabinet advisor Hugo (Patrick Walsh McBride), and hired help (Amanda Bright, Megan McDonnell, Raphel Famotibe)that just happens to be black or Irish, the script struggles to make its mark, and some borderline offensive lines just fall flat.
It is tempting to reach the conclusion that was this the work of someone starting out in the business it would not have made it this far. It is also, perhaps, a victim of high expectations.
The pacing is good and performances are absolutely fine, but characterisations so paper thin and two dimensional there is little to work with.
Eyre states in the programne he always planned to write and direct, but perhaps the distance of another person at the helm might have given this some life beyond the obvious.
The Snail House tries to encompass too many plot lines relating to class, sexuality, misogyny, racism, privilege, politics, ethics, bias, activism and pride, but they are sadly all treated in such a superficial way it is more of a chore than a pleasure to watch.
What I did like was waitress Wynona (McDonnell) and her bursts of song (Supremes, Oasis, Janis Joplin), and the wife’s sad resignation at a marriage where she has always been second best – well-portrayed, but surely these days she would have enough self-worth to walk away from being Lady Marriott, hostess.
One key revelation about the new knight could (and should) .perhaps carry the play on its own, but is almost thrown away and goes far too quickly to an awkward conclusion. As Florence, the catering manager wronged catastrophically by medical and legal issues, Bright does an excellent job with thin material but it could have been so much stronger.
There is a good play somewhere in here, but it needs a friendly eye with a firm pencil to tease it out. As for setting it so firmly in Brexit and Covidland, it makes it a transient play without much of a shelf life.
The Snail House is at the Hampstead Theatre until 15 October. For tickets go here.
Image credit: Manuel Harlan