Thursday, 8 February, 2001

Simon Gray’s new play, directed by Peter Hall, is sadly lacking in both depth and realism. It concerns the strong bond of two brothers who share the house they both grew up in, and the love for the same woman. The drama follows the three in an eternal triangle covering a period of 30 years, which pushes the brothers bond to the limit.

Lasting 2 hours and 45 minutes the show labours and overstretches and never fully explores its characters. I often find that plays that cover the lives of people over a period of ‘half-a-life-time’ tend to fall short. One is only given brief glimpses of the characters at some turning point in their life, and whilst the turning point may be interesting, the character whose life is turning remains unexplored. It is like sitting down to what one expects to be a three-course meal, only to discover you are only going to be served a bowl of soup. One feels dissatisfied! The characters remain a complete enigma, why does Michael, the older brother, not seem to be bothered about his wife having an affair with his younger brother, “Japes”? Is it because he feels responsible for ‘Japes’ after he was involved in an accident that crippled his younger brother? Or is it that he needs both his wife and brother in his life at any cost? If so, why? The character is not explored fully enough for us to get some angle on it, even by the end of the play we are still left in the dark! If the reason is because of the accident, then it really is stretching realism to the limit that a man could put up with such betrayal out of guilt. Another enigma, why does ‘Anita’ marry ‘Michael’ when it is clear that it is ‘Japes’ that she loves and ‘Japes’ seems to reciprocate? Unfortunately the play is full of questions and very few answers. The only thing that keeps your interest is to see how this ‘fantasy’ ends and frankly I have to say disappointedly, and a bit of a cop out as well!

The acting is a hit-and-miss affair too. I’m sorry to have to say this but I found Clare Swinburne’s performance as ‘Anita’ pretty awful. It was unconvincing and at times over the top, particularly when she is crying. Toby Stephens gave an adequate performance throughout most of the play and was exceptional when playing a drunk. Jasper Britton as ‘Michael’ was the most stable of the three as his performance steadily improved as the play progressed.

I may not have liked it much, but the popular press seemed to enjoy it...PATRICK MARMION for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Gray's writing is rich in characterisation” He goes on to say the play is “engaging and even loveable”. CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH describes the play as a, “funny, bruising, humane and superbly constructed drama”. He goes on to say, “This is a mordant, moving drama by a terrific writer at the height of his powers. I cannot recommend it too highly.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “The fraternal friction in Simon Gray’s Japes needs more sparks.” He goes on to say, “Japes, … is a dark comedy which looks into secret places and amuses as it does so.”

In all an untidy play with a sloppy dialogue that breaks no new ground. The only thing going for it is that it was impossible to predict what would happen next.

Mediocre is the best word to describe it.

(Darren Dalglish)

Next review by Tom Keatinge
Feb 2001

Simon Gray's latest offering, Japes at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, contains all the anguish we have come to expect of his work, and is expressed with his usual sense of wry yet painful humour.

The play, set in the Hampstead home of brothers Jason (Toby Stephens) and Michael (Jasper Britton) and spanning three decades, opens in the early 1970's with Michael's confession of his love and passion for his latest girlfriend, Anita (Clare Swinburne). Japes (as he is affectionately known) initially ridicules his brother's attempt at serious conversation of love and marriage, but it soon emerges that whilst he feigns a lack of interest in Anita to his brother, Japes himself is in fact already physically and emotionally entangled with her. Even at this early stage we are forewarned of the division that Anita has the potential to cause, as when Michael suggests that Anita might move in one day and says he would buy Japes' half of the house from him, his brother protests that Anita is forcing an unkind choice. But it is Japes himself who makes the choice, taking himself away to teach, returning only long enough to feed his passion for Anita and fuel the strength of the love she feels for him whist he is away. The stakes are raised further by the birth of Anita's daughter, and whilst the true identity of the father is never fully established, there appears little doubt that it is Japes who is the father. Yet despite this, Michael continues to ignore the intimacy his wife and brother enjoy whenever Japes visits, even when he returns home one night to find his ravaged wife sprawled across Japes on the sofa. Furthermore, his care for a daughter he must know is not his own, also remains unwavering and he acts honourably to the end as the 'legal' father of Wendy, supporting her from nursery school to rehab clinic.

The basic living room set is simply lit, focusing the action beautifully in what is a big space normally, and creating an intimate atmosphere filled by two strong performances. Toby Stephens' portrayal of the tormented Japes is powerful, demonstrating a versatile talent, as his character moves though its different evolutions in the play. Jasper Britton too is convincing as the older brother, whose success distances him ever further from his wife, immunising him from her infidelity and isolating him from any affection for the daughter in their family. Clare Swinburne's Anita seems somewhat eclipsed by these two, until late in the play when she and Japes once again succumb to the true feeling of love that neither has ever lost for the other.

Whilst the production, like the characters portrayed, comes to a somewhat disappointing end having been initially amusing and always thought provoking, the true strength of this piece lies in the way in which the triangular relationship is self containing. This is all about three people struggling with themselves in their time, seemingly keeping their problems, feelings and deceit between and within the three of them, whilst submitting each other to unintended cruelty. And yet, despite the tragedy of death and disillusion, there is a sense of hope that lives on in the rehabilitation of Wendy and her unborn child.

Tom Keatinge

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