Still-not-a-Review: Japes, Hampstead Downstairs

“You’re too good for me, that’s the trouble”

I continue to have little to say about the Simon Gray quartet of plays – Japes is the third for me – aside from to point you to how they were described on the website. 

“Experience four Simon Gray plays based on the same characters, in the same situation but all telling a different story with opposite conclusions…”

If I cared enough, I would start to investigate trade description law. The last one – Missing Dates – comes next week for me at which point I will try to put down how this whole enterprise has made me feel.

Not-a-Review: In the Vale of Health – Japes Too, Hampstead Downstairs

“I don’t mind sharing him with you”

And so back to the downstairs theatre at the Hampstead for round two of Simon Gray’s In the Vale of Health. For me, this is Japes Too – there apparently being no set order in which to see these four plays – after Michael last week, and though I wish I had something to say about Japes Too, I can’t say that I do at this point – it is probably safer to leave it until I’ve seen at least one more.    

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.  Continue reading “Review: In the Vale of Health – Michael, Hampstead Downstairs”

Review: Quartermaine’s Terms, Wyndham’s Theatre

“I don’t want them dripping their filthy compassion over me”

Lonely teachers seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Simon Gray – after Dominic West’s grizzled turn in Butley, we now get Rowan Atkinson slipping into obscurity in Quartermaine’s Terms. The play stretches over a couple of years at a dodgy English language school for foreign students in 1960s Cambridge and follows the relationships between the seven teachers as they all deal with their various crises that leave them feeling alone. The play carries a melancholy weight as understated tragicomedy is the dominant theme here but it is so muted, so low-key that it never really accrues the dramatic heft to make it matter.

Part of the problem lies in the constant referencing to Chekhov and his plays – aiming for Chekhovian depths sets a very high bar and for me, it just never reaches that level. It’s not a matter of acting – the company is full of some excellent actors and the way Gray has structured the play means that most of them get their moment to shine as their issues come to the fore. But their characters are all such social misfits that it is hard to really gain an interested foothold in their lives, even the main thrust of the play – Quartermaine’s increasing social isolation – somewhat works against this sort of engagement. Continue reading “Review: Quartermaine’s Terms, Wyndham’s Theatre”

Review: Butley, Duchess Theatre

“You’re having a terrible day…but you’re only making it worse”

The best laid plans oft gang aft and having pretty much decided not to bother with the Simon Gray play Butley, opening now at the Duchess Theatre, as I have been trying (and admittedly failing) to try and cut down on the amount of theatre I’m seeing, sure enough an offer I could not refuse popped up (courtesy of @bargaintheatre – a chap well worth a follow on Twitter for his ferreting around for some great deals) and so 10 English pounds for the best available seats in the stalls were spent for this first London review, the play having done a week in Brighton already.

Ben Butley is an academic stuck in an English department in a university at some point in the 1970s and having a frankly horrific first day of term. His wife wants a divorce, he is struggling to write his book on TS Eliot whilst his colleague has got a publishing deal, his students expecting their tutorials are impinging on his time but most significantly of all, his protégé Joseph, with whom he shares his office, his flat and frustratingly vague hints of further intimacy, is seeking his independence both professionally and domestically, about to move in with his lover Reg. In response to this turn of events, he turns up the irascibility and petulance as he flails against a world moving on without him, masking his fear of failure through some thoroughly obnoxious behaviour and a scathing line in rapier-sharp wit. Continue reading “Review: Butley, Duchess Theatre”

Review: The Late Middle Classes, Donmar Warehouse

“We live in secret almost all the time”

I love Helen McCrory. Like really love her. I have an endless list of actresses whom I really like, but McCrory sits pretty on top of the heap, having found a place in my heart through a select number of roles in film, tv and onstage, almost all of which are indelibly etched on my mind, such is the power of her acting. So when she was announced as leading the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes, I giddily booked my tickets for this, the second preview. Written in 1999, the play actually opened in Watford but did not make the anticipated transfer into London, being bizarrely usurped by a shortlived play called Boyband so this marks the first time it has been seen in the capital.

Set in the 1950s, it follows a middle-class family, bored Celia, work-obsessed Charles and their son Holliday who is discovering about life through his music lessons with the neighbourly Mr Brownlow. It is actually told in flashback by the adult Holliday recollecting his childhood after an impromptu visit to his old music tutor and the challenges posed by the post-war environment in the UK. It is felt much more strongly by his parents whose privileged position in the class structure has been lost in the face of continuing rations and an almost pyrrhic sense of victory which has not resulted in any improvement in their lives. Continue reading “Review: The Late Middle Classes, Donmar Warehouse”