Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

In the Vale of Health

Simon Gray
Hampstead Theatre

Jamie Ballard (Michael) and Laura Rees (Anita)
Jamie Ballard (Michael) and Gethin Anthony (Japes)
Imogen Doel (Wendy)

Those who plan to enjoy the Edinburgh experience of wallowing in theatre for whole days at a time can begin their training with a trip to London.

Following the all-day experience of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies there is the opportunity to see four plays in a day at Hampstead Theatre, an opportunity that rarely occurs outside the Scottish capital.

Japes

Japes was first seen during Gray's lifetime, directed by Sir Peter Hall in 2001, and is a reasonably typical example of the writer's work.

What nobody knew until very recently was that this was the first play in an 8½-hour-long quartet built around the same characters. In 2014 they have been presented together as In the Vale of Health first at Hampstead Downstairs and now, attractively in-the-round under the auspices of designer Lucy Osborne, in the main space.

Tamara Harvey directs a dedicated quartet of actors who get through a ridiculous amount of work in an 11-hour Saturday, although the plays can also be viewed separately.

In many ways, the two central figures Jason and Michael (Japes and Mikey) are not so much brothers as opposite sides of the same coin.

One, Gethin Anthony's Japes, is a rabble-rousing drunkard desperately trying to cover an innate brilliance, the other, Mikey, played by Jamie Ballard, a proto-cautious man of more limited abilities who hates to offend.

They have much in common though. Indeed they share not only literary aspirations but even a wife and daughter, both of whom somewhat stressfully belong in varying, indeterminate proportions to each.

The brothers' histories are also intimately connected since Japes's bad leg and walking stick result for some swimming pool japes (sorry) in childhood that went badly wrong.

This is very characteristic Simon Gray country, set just along the road from Hampstead Theatre in the living room of the old family home that the two men co-own.

Their comfortable coexistence is complicated by Laura Rees as Neets (or Anita). She is Mikey's girl then wife but also lover to Japes, creating all kinds of confusions, particularly for a trio all of whom are continuously consumed by angst and self-loathing, not to mention varied intoxicants.

Solutions include much navel-gazing, arguing and long painful absences. As the play develops, Mikey becomes famous for his writing, while Japes has a quieter career as an academic then literary journalist.

The final doubly post mortem act of this first play features a terrifying look at the nature of the past and paternity through the eyes of pregnant daughter Wendy (as troubled as the older folks following spells in prison and rehab) and Mikey.

There seems little more to know about the characters in a determinedly literary, apparently semi-autobiographical comedy but with three more plays to follow this poetic 2½ hour opener there inevitably will be.

Michael

Compared to Japes, Michael is a rather light, linking play lasting only 75 minutes, the last part of which is a subtle reworking of the final scene of the original play.

It tracks back to Japes and Neets, around seven years prior to their demise. In the fashion pf Alan Ayckbourn, Michael tells a similar story from new angles adding nuance and explaining intentions.

Now, the audience has a glimpse of the bogeyman that has blighted young Wendy's life, though she seems a happy enough, if rather wild and believable fifteen-year-old, thanks to the acting of Imogen Doel.

Not only is her relationship with Japes given extra resonance, there is significant additional depth to the ménage-a-trois, leading to an unexpected display of emotion from Michael, allowing Jamie Ballard to enjoy a few moments of overt drama while playing an intrinsically decent but rather dull man.

Japes Too

Japes Too really is Japes Too or Japes all over again. Until close to the end, it features scenes almost all of which have become familiar from the previous two plays.

To use analogies from other art forms (and another Gray play), the experience is rather like viewing one of The Old Masters' paintings and then seeing a series of flawed sketches from which it was created or hearing a piece of music and then three subtle variations.

The repetitions do allow viewers to reconsider their own reactions and the behaviour of the four characters.

Even then, the reactions are likely to be similar, although those variations do alter one's perceptions to a degree and shift sympathies a little.

Only at the end does originality creep in—with a vengeance.

This takes the form of a resurrection for Japes and Neets who enjoy their extension of life and reminisce over the great events that have taken place in the decade since the end of Michael.

Missing Dates

Missing Dates also goes over old ground but in a fashion that is more intriguing.

Where the earlier plays were seemingly written to obfuscate with motivations deliberately hidden, this time around, the thoughts and drivers tend to be stated more explicitly.

Variety is also introduced after the interval 7½ hours in with the appearance of a fresh actor, Tom Mothersdale, playing Wendy's henpecked husband Dominic. His nervous demeanour will inevitably suggest a case of a woman marrying a simulacrum of her own father (or uncle).

As a result, what should be the same material feels considerably fresher and makes one look at each of the four main characters in a new way.

Much of the day is carried by three remarkably energetic and dedicated actors, with Imogen Doel providing intermittent support. Gethin Anthony is suitably belligerent and haunted as Japes, Jamie Ballard delivers a sensitive portrayal of Mikey, especially in his later years, while Laura Rees ages remarkably effectively with minimal make-up.

After spending close to 11 hours in and around a darkened theatre, the likely conclusion for most will be that the two plays in the middle offer little that is fresh but Japes and the slightly more eccentric Missing Dates are both enjoyable comedies of manners, but that it may not be strictly necessary to see both.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher