1, 2 Oops-a-Daisy 3, 4
Simon Gray's In the Vale of Health:
Hampstead Theatre | London
directed by Tamara Harvey
In the wake of the late great Simon Gray, the Hampstead Theatre here pays tribute to the characters who constantly niggled away at his thoughts, right into his seventies. And where better to stage one revival and three unseen plays, all set in Hampstead, consecutively one after another.
Two orphaned brothers: Michael the healthy elder and Japes the crippled younger, who walks with a stick after a diving board incident in childhood – both engage in the same activities, some in moderation, others in excess, to the point of addiction. They write. They drink. They love – unconditionally. Did I mention they love the same girl? Well they do – Anita, commonly referred to as 'Neets', who marries Michael, but plays with Japes. Throughout the decades spanning these quadrilogy we try to unravel who may be the father of Neets' child, and whether the trio can live happily within such a complex situation.
A challenging yet exciting project for any performer sees the actors learning reams of lines and jumping into sections that aren’t necessarily in chronological order. Even sections which may have already been performed are replayed, resulting in slightly different edits and outcomes each time. Blissfully fun to watch, the cast is free to stretch their characters' wings and explore the limitless possibilities of the text. Having recently read Different Every Night by Mike Alfreds, I can’t help but feel that Gray, in an attempt to probe alternatives, has created a platform that well supports Alfreds' theory – and it’s fascinating and insightful to watch.
Differentiating the pieces is Lucy Osborne’s simple design, seeing a couple of chairs, sofas and coffee tables take up residence in a space set up in the round. Tamara Harvey’s direction ensures a gentle ebb and flow of conflict that allows an organic movement within the living room they all belong to. Impulses of violence, however, jar, with no real threat of a follow-through.
A couple of minors aside, a cast that may not be believably old by look (or in some cases young) almost instantly make you see past their exterior – and they are seriously wonderful. A swivel in his step, Gethin Anthony's Japes battles constantly with alcoholism, numbing his heartache while the title of ‘Uncle’ kicks him in the teeth. Laura Rees is Neets, the piggy in the middle on a journey which sees her rot into a pompous monster longing for affection, mainly from a child. And Jamie Ballard earns every bit of recognition as Michael, the established writer, who comes across very much wet, but in actual fact tears his heart out for the rest of his bitter, “most promising” foreseeable future to remain true to the definition of the words which he honours so deeply, regardless of the guilt he feels for his brother’s hindrance.
A moment in which the brothers both utter the tender words “I love you all” highlights the single, strong sentiment within this simple word – purifying its many uses into one consolidated and meaningful emotion which encapsulates the entire production.
photo | ©Alastair Muir