In 1985, Susan Wooldridge made her name as Daphne Manners in ‘The Jewel In the Crown’ by having a nasty shock in an overgrown garden. You turn your back for 25 years and she’s at it again this time in a tense and twisting three-hander by Alan Ayckbourn which combines his well-documented empathy with the anguish of suburban womanhood with an unfulfilled ambition to write a ‘serious’ play.

As Annabel Chester she has returned to inherit the family home, from Tasmania where she’s been living for 35 years without the trace of an Australian accent, and to spar uneasily with her sister Miriam who dutifully tended their ailing father until, at the end of her rope, she may just have overdosed him with medication – slightly – and pushed him down the stairs.

Father’s former nurse, who has a nice sideline in blackmail, is portrayed by Mossie Smith as a chippy but lumpen prole at odds with Wooldridge’s clumsily bombastic Tory bitch. Neither of these performances is completely convincing, Wooldridge paces the traverse stage as if she’s uncomfortable being there, and Smith stomps around like a prize-fighter waiting to land a punch.

Miriam, as played more naturalistically by the remarkable Sarah Woodward with luminous intelligence, carries the piece partly because Ayckbourn has drawn this character more finely and given her both the upper hand in the dialogue and the more sympathetic motivations, but also because her acting is of such a higher standard that any technique is invisible and you are undeniably drawn to her.

The imbalance between the three characters is a flaw, as is the plotting which will be easily anticipated by anyone who’s seen ‘Deathtrap’ or ‘Sleuth’ – the clues are so obviously planted they could come with potting shed labels, but where the play rises above the schlock of the horror genre is in Ayckbourn’s cleverly controlled gradual escape of the darker detail of the disturbed relationship each of the women has had with the men in her life, and with each other.

The atmospherics are enabled superbly by William Dudley’s magisterially dilapidated tennis court set which could be a metaphor for the dessication of middle class society complete in every detail down to the rusted mower and dried out grass, and by Richard Howell’s creepily effective lighting and Neil Alexander’s subtle sound patterns.

Director Lucy Bailey controls the pacing carefully to heighten the tension, and there’s every chance the hairs on the back of your neck will rise more than once before the denouement.

The Print Room is a lovely addition to the London fringe theatre circuit, and whilst it’s ten minutes’ walk from Queensway, Bayswater or Notting Hill tubes, it’s in an area very well-served for cafes, restaurants and bars.

Runs until 5th March

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.