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A CurtainUp Review

By Lizzie Loveridge

My name was on the cheque for every provider from your nursery school to your drugs clinic.  
-- Mike

Jasper Britton and Toby Stephens (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Simon Gray's new play Japes is a variation on the eternal triangle, sibling rivalry and guilt. We follow two brothers over almost three decades. Although what is happening at each stage of the play's journey is crucial, we also get a feel of the essence of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The play is memorable for two very fine performances from the men who are second generation thespians -- Toby Stephens, the son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens, and Jasper Britton, Tony Britton's son. Japes has been rushed into the Theatre Royal, Haymarket from Colchester after the demise of Jeffrey Archer's dire courtroom drama The Accused which featured the elder Britton as the judge.

I remember Simon Gray for his novels satirising bright young things but with very nasty twists. He has written many plays for, and books about, the theatre. In his amusing new book about playwrights, The Full Room, Dominic Dromgoole dubs Gray "the poet laureate of dyspepsia". He says that this is because Gray's plays leave him feeling slightly unsatisfied. I too felt some dissatisfaction with the new play because it has a very slow build to the point where it starts to get more interesting. The trouble is that you cannot skim read in the theatre.

The story begins in the early 1970s when Japes (Toby Stephens) and his brother Mike (Jasper Britton) have inherited a house in Hampstead after the death of their parents. Japes has a severe limp and some health problem due to a childhood swimming pool accident as a result of Mike fooling around. Both men are writers and in the opening scenes, Mike finds an agent and a girl Anita (Clare Swinburne). Anita really loves Japes but as she is pregnant she marries Mike after Japes goes to South America to work in a university. The triangle picks up when Japes returns and resumes his sexual relationship with Anita. Over the Eighties and Nineties, Japes, Mike and Anita continue the early pattern, the affair, Mike never confronting his wife or his brother. Japes loses his job and almost his life with alcohol dependency whereas Mike becomes a very well known author. Anita's life is dogged with disappointment. The next generation, Mike and Anita's daughter Wendy (again played by Claire Swinburne) inherits the dysfunctional consequences and forces her father to face what he has assiduously avoided. I won't be a spoiler with more plot details, except to tell you that Gray has left the ending vague.

The performances are excellent. Jasper Britton's Mike, always less interesting than his brother ages from his tousled haired, sweatered twenties to his fifties, when he looks like a barrister and has been knighted and wears a Garrick Club tie. He is always disappointed despite the success in his career. I also suspect that he might be a more sinister figure than is immediately apparent. Toby Stephens as Japes uses a stick to walk awkwardly throughout. When he returns, after having been marched onto the aeroplane in Guyana, he gives a masterly display of a man worse for for wear. He looks like a derelict, gulping down whisky from the bottle, and is almost incoherent. However he has an easy charm and his recovery shows him at his most relaxed. Clare Swinburne, becoming rather fruity in middle age, shows her true acting range when she steps into the role of her own demanding daughter -- the mercenary and ungrateful daughter Wendy.

Peter Hall lets the characterisations drive the play with a simple sitting room set changing just enough to show the change in time's passing and the evolving tensions.

Written by Simon Gray
Directed by Sir Peter Hall

Starring: Toby Stephens
With: Jasper Britton and Clare Swinburne
Design: John Gunther
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7930 8800
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th February 2001 performances at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1

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