All-day, multi-play marathons in the theatre tend to be reserved for epic drama: Shakespeare’s history plays, say. At Hampstead Theatre, however, audiences can devote a whole Saturday (starting at 11am and staggering out 11 hours later) to a handful of characters embroiled in a lifelong struggle with love and betrayal amid the leather sofas of a middle-class home. It is a fascinating, witty experiment, bringing four different perspectives to the same vexed scenario, and it is expertly delivered in Tamara Harvey’s staging. However, it does not quite reward the considerable time investment.
In the Vale of Health gathers together four plays by Simon Gray, three of which have not been staged before (you can see them on separate evenings or all in one day). The starting point is Japes, a droll, perceptive, alternately bitter and tender portrayal of two brothers – Jason (Japes) and Michael – and the woman with whom they are both in love, Anita. Anita is set to marry Michael, a would-be writer, but she is also drawn to the more feckless, reckless Japes. The play follows them over a 30-year period, as Michael becomes a famous author and Japes an alcoholic academic. It ends when Anita’s daughter (Imogen Doel), whose paternity is never quite certain, returns to the family home as an adult with a view to settling scores.
The subsequent three plays (Michael, Japes Too, Missing Dates) offer variations on this main theme, in which tiny differences of choice alter radically the outcome or in which small, additional revelations change the audience’s judgment of characters. Gray can switch from wit to pain within a sentence and the plays are packed with questions: about love, guilt, betrayal, responsibility, addiction and free will. To some extent the brothers could even represent opposing drives in a single personality: one bent on self-destruction, the other on self-preservation.
The plays are also about writing and acting, again suggesting how small changes in emphasis can carry great significance. Harvey’s delicately shaded productions bring this out beautifully, with the excellent cast rising brilliantly to the challenge of repeating whole passages of dialogue in different moods. In one play Michael (Jamie Ballard) appears insecure and apologetic; in another much more calculating. Gethin Anthony’s Japes can seem charismatic or callous – and is harrowing when his drinking catches up with him. Laura Rees’s Anita is much more innocent in one reading.
A long haul, then, and, though intriguing, not quite revelatory enough to justify the outlay of time and commitment. But it is hard to imagine it better done.