In the Vale of Health

The Vale of Health, NW3. Even the name carries a certain caché.
I always had the slight feeling of entering a special place when I used to visit it at a particular time in my life, in the 1970s.

For playwright Simon Gray (he of The Smoking Diaries fame), it evidently also held a particular allure. For it forms the root and stem of a nest of plays that have now accreted around Japes, the play he wrote in 1999, first put on in 2000 in Colchester and later in the West End in 2001.

In The Vale of Health is not just one play but a quartet including three others – Japes Too, Michael and Missing Dates. There are evidently others, spawned of the same idea but as Ed Hall wisely says in his programme note, they decided to call it a day at four plays.

The idea of circulating a number of alternatives around a single idea wasn’t unique to Gray. Alan Ayckbourn has been the multiple scenarios juggler par excellence of modern British theatre. Never content to have a situation seen from only one set of characters, he has had them indulging in many a merry – and –not so merry – merry-go-rounds.

As in art, so in life. A slip here, a different decision there could have sent any of us on a different path. If only…

Gray and Ayckbourn then were on to a good thing in their multi-faceted kaleidoscopic imaging, reflecting the arbitrary shape of life. Gray, too, was known for the caustic, bitter loquaciousness of his middle-class intellectual/academic protagonists (eg Butley) and often suffered at the hands of critics (myself included) for seeming to follow an all-too familiar and repetitive return to the same circle of male, middle-class, characters.

Time passes, fashions change. Gray’s output actually confronted a number of taboo subjects. So in Japes, with its main trio of two brothers and the girl-friend they `share’, we’re plunged into an emotional maelstrom that also engages obsessively with sibling cruelty shown in many forms from the secretive to the fully confrontational. You can’t help feeling much of this is drawn deeply from a personal experience outlined in a programme note though Gray also denies it.

Tamara Harvey’s in-the-round production – yet another wonderfully fresh and different reconfiguring of the Hampstead auditorium if not always conducive to a clear appreciation of the text – fields a young team, prefigured by ab fab music of the period (Rod Stewart, Carol King, James Taylor etc) whose youth probably follows Gray’s intentions but who sometimes seems too lightweight. I didn’t see the other three variations on a theme which might have made them even more intriguing.

Gray was ever the non-conforming, anti-politically correct, occasionally touching on misogynistic, rebel. His language was often violent, over-indulged but at the end of Japes, he has Japes’ best-selling author brother, Michael explode into a furious denunciation, to his daughter, about her generation’s blunt, pragmatic attitudes to sex that seems to come from the very core of Gray the romantic. Japes is, after all, for all its drug, alcohol and sexually promiscuous related examples of human selfishness, about language, the love of language. And love. The bumpy, painful, mixed up, confused and impossible means humans have to express it. And how to find it.

Never mind Ayckbourn, Gray really has more in common with that other, great, exploratory, frequently under-valued `casualty’ of the late 1960s and ‘70s, David Mercer. Someone should revive him sometime.