Who exactly is Simon Jay? It’s surprisingly hard to say. The real Simon Jay is both a very capable actor and an enormously likeable young man, judging by the ten minutes he spent chatting with early arrivals before his solo play began. But there’s also a fictional Simon Jay, who recently passed away at the age of 90, after a life marred by tragedy and shared with few friends. If you’re confused, I can’t say I blame you – but hang in there, because it makes a kind of sense by the end.
But you’ll need to pay attention, because this is a script full of layered riddles and subtly-linked narratives. The story’s told backwards, starting with the fictional Jay’s post-mortem, and a series of questions posed in his later life are addressed once we learn about his earlier years. Many of the answers are the type you’d never have guessed, but feel you somehow knew all along. Written by Jay himself in partnership with Scott Payne, the monologue is admirably subtle, constantly surprising – and really rather clever.
It’s so clever, in fact, that I wish it had taken itself just a little bit more seriously. There’s an offbeat surrealism to much of the plot which – for me at least – proved an occasional distraction from what could have been a very human tale. The recurring theme of sewage also didn’t quite do it for me, although it must be said that it’s far from the most egregious example of toilet humour you’ll find at this year’s Fringe.
The real Jay is a confident performer, who switches between dozens of roles and still makes each one his own. Even the pastiches, like the overblown health guru Dr Strepsils, have enough about them to be interesting – and parts of the performance have an improvised feel, in a completely positive way. Given that he’s dressed the whole time in a business suit and tie, he’s also surprisingly convincing in the female roles. The very posh woman trying to learn to use email was my favourite creation of all.
But my one real disappointment with this play is that it has a Simon-Jay-shaped hole at its heart. We never actually meet the fictional protagonist – and while I realise that’s entirely the point, I found I couldn’t quite build a mental picture of what he’d have been like to talk to. Encompassing a man’s whole life in the space of 60 minutes was always a challenging proposition, and as soon as you have a handle on one Simon Jay, you’ll find you’re being introduced to a much younger and quite different one.
But the real Simon Jay – the actor – is a man I’d like to see more of, too. This is a witty, engaging piece of free theatre, and well worth catching on one of its many dates here in Brighton.