Japes was written and first produced by Sir Peter Hall in 2001 so it is befitting that this very personal Simon Gray play would now be brought back to life at Hampstead Theatre where Edward Hall (son of Sir Peter) mans the ship. Japes is part of a quadrilogy (you know what I mean) which delves into a ménage à trois that begins in the early 70s in Hampstead.
Over the span of three decades, the play tells the story of two brothers, Michael and Japes, who fall in love with the same woman. During rehearsals for Japes in 2001, Gray began writing Japes Too and returned to the subject with a third version, called Michael. Finally, in 2008, he wrote a fourth version for radio entitled, Missing Dates. Hampstead Theatre is bringing us all four plays between March 20th and May 17th.
Simon Gray has written over 30 plays for the stage and what ties many of these plays together is the intense emotional turmoil of his characters that is always painfully contained in that ‘oh so very British exterior’. Japes is no exception to this. The anguish of the four characters on stage is palpable as is the very British restraints that stop them from reaching out to people in their lives.
As I watched the play, I felt that this must have been a very personal piece for its author whose own brother died young of alcoholism. But, while the trials and tribulations of the three main characters were interesting, it is inevitable that the decision to tell a story that spans 30 years does not allow for much character development. As the story unfolds and we jump ahead, 5 or even 10 years, much time is spent giving us exposition of what has happened in the intervening years. This inevitably slows down the pace and while each scene gives us a brief glimpse of an interesting turning point in the characters’ life, the characters themselves remain unexplored.
In this case, we never understand why Anita marries Michael, or why Japes leaves to teach in the tropics. We never know why Michael doesn’t mind that his younger brother maintains an affair with his wife. Is it because he feels responsible for his younger brother’s accident in the swimming pool? Or is it because he knows Anita doesn’t love him as much and would leave him if he didn’t agree to this? And why does Anita marry Michael and not Japes when they are both clearly in love? I was also unsure as to why their difficult daughter, Wendy, fabulates about her childhood. These difficult topics are never explored and we are left watching events unfold without understanding the why. We can feel the characters’ desperation but not understand their inner feelings.
That being said, the play does touch on some very important questions about talent or lack thereof and its effect on people. It does explore the consequences of indulging in alcohol and deserting ones’ responsibilities or not facing up to one’s problems. It also gives us glimpses of the guilt felt by those who are successful while simultaneously showing their intense need to be top dog nevertheless.
Gethin Anthony, as Japes, portrays the alcoholic unsuccessful writer who transforms completely between scenes very compellingly. Jamie Ballard is convincing as the older brother, who feigns disinterest with success but secretly loves it, Garrick Club and all. We feel for him while also acknowledging that he is incapable of handling the ‘personal’ issues in his life, which will ultimately leave him isolated. Laura Rees’s Anita was good as the lover and wife though I was not so convinced by her acceptance of the situation. She never seemed to come alive for me and that is perhaps due to the text rather than Miss Rees’ acting. Imogen Doel was very good as the daughter. Tamara Harvey directs he play and the simple living room set is designed by Lucy Osborne.