The pandemic has brought out budding playwright Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theater. He conceived The Snail House during the lockdown and boldly becomes his first original work of his in a vast and rich work of directed and adapted works for stage and screen.
This debut, which he also directs, is a family drama with a comedy about the state of the nation and a story of medical misdiagnosis. As interesting as these parts are, they do not form a unified whole.
It opens into an oak paneled room where a birthday dinner is prepared for Neil Marriot (Vincent Franklin), a prominent pediatrician, recently knighted. The silver service staff lines the cutlery; Neil’s wife Val (Eva Pope) arranges the flowers; his children, Hugo (Patrick Walshe McBride) and Sarah (Grace Hogg-Robinson), quarrels and whores.
Eyre avoids the cliché of dinner on stage by projecting the action into the “other” room, an addition to where guests are gathered, a bit like Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party in its dramatic location. But unlike that classic, fights don’t feel loaded and punches don’t land. Sarah, a teenage activist, talks too metallicly about the climate emergency while Hugo, a cartoonishly styled political adviser, lurks around in airy criticisms.
It’s only at halftime that some dangers build up after catering director Florence (Amanda Bright) reveals a backstory involving misdiagnosis in a child abuse case that landed her in jail and questions the Neil’s professional judgment. But this streak disappears until the second half of the second act, when it is resolved too quickly and docilely.
There are also fights between father and daughter that sound real but are circular and repetitive. Sarah is too shrill, but even then our sympathies stop siding with Neil when he condemns the entire generation as one that does nothing but march and wear rainbow ribbons. We have glimpses into the life of the restaurant staff who occasionally interact with the family, not always convincingly, but not insightful.
There are some good moments though: Hugo labeling the monarchy as “the chinless Kardashians”, Neil’s powerful description of an orphanage in Ceaușescu Romania and the singing voice of young maid Wynona (Megan McDonnell). But in the end the script takes on too much without giving us enough, leaving this feeling like a play unsure of its focus.