Four separate plays. Four interlocking plays. The same play performed four ways.
To assign In the Vale of Health a succinct description is a challenge. Most accurately perhaps, it is playwright Simon Gray’s most thorough and sustained exploration of perspective, of real and potential memory and the different futures that are available. The four plays were written during the final years of Gray’s writing career, as he continued to revise the first play Japes, intrigued by the alterative lives of his characters, if they had made different choices. It would be an understatement to call Tamara Harvey’s decision to stage these four plays together using the same cast a challenge. As a cohesive piece of drama, the premise is fascinating, and if you can afford the time, it is well worth the investment of trying to view all four.
Set in the same living room in a Hampstead home, over a number of decades and with local references littering the text, it seems that if the plays could work, it would be here, at the Hampstead Theatre. Performed in the round, the set is recomposed for each play, to match the small discrepancies in action and conclusion of each storyline. The stage itself, therefore, becomes a disorientating space that seems to refresh and renew itself with each play. Dramatic time becomes (particularly if you choose to participate in the ‘marathon’ and watch the four plays consecutively across one day) non-linear. Instead, time is circular (in a Webster-esque fashion), measured by the endless drinks, fags and spliffs that preoccupy all the characters.
This play is notable for its intertextuality- not only between the different plays, but also within them. References to Wordsworth and Eliot imbue the piece with the theme of frustrated romance, and indicate Gray’s concern with finding the right words, whilst rewriting the same story again and again. The characters are incredibly difficult to pin them down and understand. Anita, affectionately known as ‘Neets’, played by Laura Rees, is perhaps the hardest. Each play reveals a new perspective to her character. Her energy in all four plays provided the scenes with momentum, as she continually veers between survival and self-destruct. Caught between two brothers, played by Gethin Anthony as Japes and Jamie Ballard as Michael, the actors reinvent new versions of the same characters with ease and finesse. The three are a forceful and commanding leadership to each of the plays, constantly fascinating and complex. Although Anthony is a perhaps a little young for the part of Japes, he does manage to bring a surprising gravitas to the character, particularly in the latter halves of the plays. Enjoyably, the different plays permit a showcasing of each of the characters, which can subsequently alter the perception of a preceding play.
A careful combination of dark humour and moments of pathos and frustration, the plays are an emotional whirlwind. Perhaps one criticism would be that when analysed separately, as individual pieces of drama, there appears to be a slight discrepancy in quality between the pieces. Japes and Missing Dates are the most interesting and thorough, whilst Michael and Japes Too are good supplements, but perhaps fail to establish themselves as stand-alone pieces of drama- a problem essentially located in the writing. However, Harvey’s direction has intended the plays to be cohesive, to depend and refer to each other, and the result is an overall combination of hilarity and melancholy, which only intensifies across the collection. The end result of the quartet is undoubtedly a confrontation of the repetitive failure of human relationships.
To understand exactly what In the Vale of Health achieves, it is possible to turn to Michael, in which the concept of lives lived “separately and together”, (simultaneously with and without the people who are important), is discussed. This could be extended into a manifesto for watching the plays, which can exist separately, but undoubtedly are more interesting, more diverse and better, together.