In The Vale Of Health: ★★★★ from Telegraph
Posted on 1 June 2014.
Posted in: Theatre Reviews
In the Vale of Health, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘a loving production’
By Charles Spencer, Telegraph
If you chose to see the Saturday marathon performances of these four plays by the late Simon Gray (1938-2008) you will take your seats at 11 am and emerge shortly before 10pm, though there are plenty of breaks and you can also see them individually.
It’s a big commitment but it pays rich rewards, for Gray was a wonderfully sharp-eyed and witty writer who also plumbed the depths of pain and there is something heroic about his obsession with the three characters he pursues through these works.
The first piece, Japes, was directed by Peter Hall in the West End in 2001. But Gray felt he had unfinished business with his characters, and wrote a further five plays about them, three of which are now being performed on stage for the first time alongside Japes.
There are some repetitions in the narrative, as well as fresh revelations about the characters, and startling moments when the complex story takes off in completely new directions. As the cycle progresses we follow the characters from their youth to old age, with one of them finally lapsing into dementia.
The core of all the plays however is a painful romantic triangle. At the start of the first work, Michael, a budding novelist, is beginning his relationship with Anita in the house he shares with his brother Jason (nicknamed Japes). But Japes is also sleeping with her, and when Michael marries her, and Anita bears a child, it is far from certain who is the father. In one version of the story, Michael seems to accept this ménage a trois. In another, he deliberately scuppers his younger brother’s chances of literary success. As consequence Jape goes off to teach English literature at a university in Guyana, and eventually returns as a chronic alcoholic.
There is a particularly personal poignancy about this story, as Gray’s own brother Piers was a university lecturer who died of his alcoholism and the playwright himself nearly died of the same affliction but lived to tell the tale and remained sober for the rest of his life.
What I love about Gray’s writing is his Chekhovian gift of freighting apparent small talk with unspoken emotional depth, and the obsessive quality with which he pursues characters he clearly cares for deeply to the bitter end.
Some will doubtless complain that such well crafted plays about the Hampstead literati is irredeemably bourgeois and self-obsessed, and Gray himself seems to anticipate such a reaction. One of the most passionate passages is a demolition of the so called “in yer face” theatre of cruelty and violence that was prevalent when Gray was writing these wise and civilised pieces.
Tamara Harvey’s productions get maximum value from Gray’s sardonic humour and sudden jolting moments of grief and betrayal. And there are strong, deeply felt performances from Jamie Ballard as the apparently complaisant Michael, Gethin Anthony as the lame younger brother whose descent into full-blown alcoholism is harrowing to behold, and Laura Rees as the woman they both love. There are fine supporting performances too from Imogen Doel as the troubled, vengeful daughter who has inherited the addictive gene, and Tom Mothersdale as her hilariously ineffectual husband.
My only regret is that Gray is no longer alive to see his magnum opus staged with such love and panache.