During the Covid pandemic, one of the positive effects of people being locked in their homes was the release of pent-up creativity. For most this began and ended with attempts to make sourdough bread, but others were considerably more productive. For instance Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, returned to writing, and now, aged almost 80, and after a celebrated career directing other people’s work, he is for the first time bringing his own play to the stage.
The action takes place in a single location – a private dining room at a public school – and in just two extended scenes; before and after a birthday dinner for Professor Sir Neil Marriot, a leading paediatrician and working-class boy made good.
Interactions between the catering staff and members of the Marriot family provide opportunities to examine some of the problems affecting them, and society more broadly.
So many different issues are addressed in The Snail House that the play sometimes seems to lack a clear sense of direction, and the treatment of the issues can feel superficial. But it is never tokenistic, and it is gratifying to see someone of Eyre’s vintage engaging with something like woke culture considerately, rather than angrily waving his fist at the sky.
Indeed, a call for people to engage with complicated issues considerately, to try to see things from other perspectives, and to question their own certainties, appears to be the central message of the play.
And perhaps the fact it all seems somewhat chaotic is what makes it an apt summary of the current state of Britain. The country is a mess, and even with good will, it’s going to take a while to sort it all out.
The naturalistic setting and acting are excellent, with a scene-stealing turn from Megan McDonnell as an unruly caterer who routinely bursts into song. Eyre’s writing is crisp and lively, and exercises admirable restraint (his reverence for Chekov is evident throughout, even in the stage directions).
Given the events of this week, it was courageous not to omit an uncharitable characterisation of the royal family, which drew wry chuckles and sharp intakes of breath.
Richard Eyre’s debut play has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. Future audiences will regard it as a fascinating time-capsule of social concerns during a tumultuous period in British history.