IN THE VALE OF HEALTH
by Simon Gray.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 14 June 2014.
Japes 11am 7, 14 June.
3, 13 June.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
Michael 2.30pm 7, 14 June.
7.30pm 5, 11 June.
Runs 1hr 15min No interval.
Japes Too 4.30pm 7, 14 June.
7.30pm 4, 12 June.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
Missing Dates 7.30pm 6, 7, 10, 13 June.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 31 May.
Lives’ rich tapestry in several weaves.
Raised to ground-level and the daylight of publicity on the main Hampstead stage, these four productions of plays by a dead white male playwright (how he’d have poured dramatic vitriol on the words) began life recently in Hampstead’s far less publicised Downstairs space, intended for various forms of dramatic experiment.
Since Japes followed its 1999 Mercury Theatre opening in Colchester with a London run and Gray was repeatedly produced in the West End over three decades, the idea of experiment seems remote. But it’s the assemblage of these four scripts under this umbrella title that makes for something different.
Each play can be seen independently, though Hampstead offers a financial inducement to see more than one version and the cumulative impact grows with each piece. This is, perhaps, strange, for they were not mean to be seen as a group.
In addition to this season’s shows there are two more ‘versions’ of the story – or two more stories – in existence, but four is probably enough for anyone – actor or audience member – to take in for now.
Japes begins like many a Gray play, with an intelligent academic who is disengaged in personal relationships and whose ironic tongue can’t prevent a growing awareness of failure in his own life, his verbal attacks often masking guilt and humiliation.
Yet in this family story the options – the plays are alternatives, not sequential – include the failure of benevolent feelings and attempts to do good. As in Gray’s Hidden Laughter external events can offer a shaft of sunlight alongside sour tastes of character and fortune.
Across the four plays a character may be dismissed part-way by sudden offstage death or recover from an apparently lifelong condition. But there’s an overall darkness about the future. The central woman, Anita (‘Neets’) is loved by brothers Michael and Jason (‘Japes’ in the family nicknames which help define this world). Either brother may be father to her daughter Wendy.
Neets’ feelings to the brothers differ through the plays, but there’s a sense of fear and something unknown about her, which is reduced to contempt much of the time for Wendy, who ends-up vicious onstage or dysfunctional off it. Her husband Dominic, seen only in Missing Dates, is clownishly ineffectual and, it turns out, close to breaking-down.
For top of the Gray hate-list are youth and feminism, depicted, if largely by report, in its extremes. Japes and the other versions in which the author explored various possibilities in the characters during the 1990s, came at the times when recovered memory syndrome was, according to view, liberating repressions or creating false allegations, and this writer would hardly be sympathetic to women’s support mechanisms (another term he’d have gloried over).
The various outcomes deliver shocks, certainly when seen in the order showing on Saturday tetralogy marathons. The future is doubly darkened, by what happens to the characters who have been seen from their earlier adult days and by the generation they have reared (saying more risks spoiling surprises audience-members have the right to experience for themselves).
Often passages, or scenes, recur, slightly reworked, from play to play. Be prepared, if seeing several, for déjà vu, but not for boredom. Repetition acts like emphasis amid the growing sense of lives at the mercy of time and fortune. Of course there’s comedy but, as with many later Alan Ayckbourn plays, less than the writer’s early reputation might suggest.
Amid the variety, the four main cast members make some situations more real-seeming than others. Scenes can grip with absolute conviction while elsewhere a sense of artificiality creeps in – there is a wide spread of behaviour suggesting very different temperaments for the actors to encompass across the plays. And, on Saturdays especially, those have to be evoked in short order.
What impresses in Tamara Harvey’s production is Gray’s searching mind, its perception, individuality, self-criticism and even, sometimes, the incomplete appreciation of those whose age, sex and viewpoint is distinct from the author’s familiar world of family and career.
Thankfully, while Gray increasingly turned in his later years to diaries – as does Japes to his memoirs – he also spent the best part of a decade revisiting and extending the scope of his final drama.
It’s a reminder too how many of his plays, apart from the three best-known, Butley, Otherwise Engaged and Quartermaine’s Terms there are for revival. If Hampstead, Harvey or anyone else agrees they might look in particular at Dog Days and the historical drama ill-received on its first appearance, The Rear Column.
Gray always has to be taken on his own terms. This adventurous quartet of productions points to why that’s worth doing.
Michael: Jamie Ballard.
Japes: Gethin Anhony.
Anita: Laura Rees.
Wendy: Imogen Doel.
Dominic: Tom Mothersdale.
Director: Tamara Harvey.
Designer: Lucy Osborne.
Lighting: Joshua Carr.
Sound: Matt McKenzie.
Composer: Jared Zaus.
Associate director: Laurence Cook.