Avillage choir sings in harmony but is none too harmonious in Roy MacGregor’s “Snake in the Grass,” the latest in the new play season of Peter Hall’s Old Vic company. MacGregor died earlier this year of cancer at age 46, and it would be wonderful to report that this posthumous premiere constitutes his own best tribute. But of a play whose catalyst declares, “This is the truth, the truth bites,” onemust be blunt: A certain crude power notwithstanding, this newest work seems both overwritten and unfinished, and try though he might, director Dominic Dromgoole can’t smooth over clunky, rough edges that require a writer to put right.
“Snake” opens with a tableau that the rest of the play is hard-pressed to match: the members of the Hazlitt Heath choral society deep in rehearsals for Haydn’s “Creation.” The ambience at first suggests Alan Ayckbourn’s “Chorus of Disapproval,” a bleakly comic expose of small-town life as seen through its amateur dramatics. But amid much portentous talk of an incident that MacGregor takes his time making explicit, “Snake” has something grimmer on its mind than glimpses of the West Country’s petit bourgeoisie. Faux Ayckbourn suddenly becomes imitation Ibsen, replete with references to “a terrible fire” and to a community made cancerous by gossip.
While choir director Edward Sliddon (John Normington) devotes himself to the town’s forthcoming concert, former student Ray Lucas (Kevin Whately) has returned to seek revenge. For what, exactly, is blatantly withheld, but most will have figured it out long before MacGregor spells it out: Ray claims that as a 12-year-old child of unusual musical gifts, he was raped by Edward. The shocking charge looks set to affect the political career of Edward’s grown daughter, Julia (Teresa Banham).
Like Ray, MacGregor has his own scores to settle, most of them pertaining to a class enmity that may strike Americans, at least, as pretty tiresome. In its way, “Snake” is as much about class vitriol as it is about child abuse: The middle class is bad (Greg Hicks’ hilariously unctuous Andrew Carshalton, the local doctor, makes this plain), while the working class exists mainly to get shafted, in every sense. Ray is a walking sermon who seems far less dangerous than merely ponderous.
On Es Devlin’s spare, fluid set, Dromgoole manages some disquieting moments, not least the sight of Edward spooked (literally) by the young Ray from long ago. But the ending makes a cryptic botch of a situation that is otherwise exploited for melodrama, and neither the estimable Normington nor the excellent Sheila Reid as his wife, Betty, can fill in the motivational blanks. The sensationalist plot lends a clumsy pull to “Snake in the Grass,” but it takes more than a (deliberate) misquote from John Donne to elevate a heartfelt play to an honest one.