Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Review: In the Vale of Health – Michael, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’ve never had a bad review, at least not in the theatre”

A cycle of four interlinked Simon Gray plays might have seemed a curious enterprise for the Hampstead Theatre but it is one that has paid rich dividends before even a curtain had been raised. The run in the downstairs space sold so well that a transfer upstairs to the main house was quickly announced for In the Vale of Health, four plays which feature the same characters in the same situation but making different decisions – Japes, Japes Too, Michael and Missing Dates.

The play that started it all off is Japes but in the mad rush to get the highly bargainous multi-deal that worked out at a fiver a show, all thoughts of scheduling went out of the window and so I’ll be seeing Japes third and the show that started off my experience was Michael, the one that Gray wrote third in the sequence of exploring the potential worlds of these characters. We were told that the plays could be watched in any order though I can’t help but wonder if seeing Japes first might not have been a better idea. 

For though Michael was enjoyable to watch, at 80 minutes long it presupposes quite a lot about who these people are, exactly how their relationships tick, and the significance of certain key events. Michael and Jason (known as Japes) are brothers who are both academically inclined and who both love the same woman Anita. Here though, it is Michael whose career has taken off and who got the girl, with Japes’ alcoholism taking a heavy toll, not least on Anita’s daughter Wendy, whose paternity it turns out isn’t quite clear cut.

It is fascinating stuff and compellingly acted in Tamara Harvey’s production which definitely benefits from the intimate in-the-round setting designed by Lucy Osborne. Gethin Anthony and Jamie Ballard as the brothers, Laura Rees as the woman between them and Imogen Doel as one or the other’s daughter all flourish in the microscopic atmosphere even if the experience of watching this felt like starting a giant jigsaw puzzle when one isn’t even sure which way up the pieces should go. 

I am most fascinated to discover to what level things are in flux, just how much will change in the following pieces, and if indeed there is a baseline from which everything starts, whether it is the synopsis on the website, the plot of Japes, or something else entirely. All will soon be revealed. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 9th May and then transferring upstairs 28th May-14th June 

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