Noël Coward Theatre, London – until 19 January 2018
It would be hard to imagine a play about young gay lives that speaks more eloquently to older gay men than the moving, informative and often hilarious The Inheritance now transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre.
At the original production at the Young Vic, at the end of the first part which explores how the AIDS crisis unfolds among young attractive Manhattanites, some exchanged glances indicating ‘I lived through this too’. By the end of part two, many were openly weeping, such is the power and beauty of this production, possibly director Stephen Daldry’s finest work.
It has lost very little of its intimacy even in the transfer to a bigger venue, although the uppermost tiers of the theatre are not currently being used, so you’re still closely engaged with the characters. If anything it has grown in stature, although you may heed a warning not to choose the expensive unraked seats in the Stalls which don’t see all of the raised stage.
Author Matthew Lopez is little-known here, but by eclipsing Tony Kushner’s now vintage Angels in America, he may have redefined the gay writing genre for a new generation. Lopez uses the device of a creative writing class on EM Forster to adapt the plot of Howards End so that the disused property figures large in a four-way relationship between two older and wealthier, and two younger and aspirational men whose pathways to and through the health crisis are criss-crossed with politics, drugs and inter-generational sex.
So many references resonated with me – the love of MY life had a rent-controlled apartment on West End Avenue and was an early victim of AIDS. I’ve cruised the bookshop in which Toby meets Adam; saying no more but I know what happens in the East Side Club. I’ve had a loving relationship with a 30-year age gap, when I did the creative writing course at Cambridge if my tutor didn’t say as Morgan does ‘look in to your hearts and write’, he came pretty close. I’ve encountered the exaggerated look-at-us gay couple stereotypes when I sang with New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and I know that you can get grilled meat anywhere in Manhattan but for a ‘proper’ steak, you go to Peter Luger in Brooklyn. And order the secret bacon.
After such early adventures, I escaped into dull but serial monogamy which probably saved my life, but in Part 2 of The Inheritance, so many personal journeys fall apart, and it’s a tribute to the writing that the characters are so well realised and fully-formed that you stay with them to the end, never judging even when sharing their avoidable pain.
No man in the cast is less than excellent, but Samuel H Levine is outstanding as fresh-faced Adam and hustler Leo and while the marvellous John Benjamin Hickey brings all the class and sensitivity from his 2011 Tony award-winning performance in The Normal Heart, it is Paul Hilton as the Forster-ish Morgan and as Hickey’s valiant partner Walter who will walk away with the Olivier.
It is an all-male cast with the exception of Vanessa Redgrave who makes her eleven o’clock appearance as the mother of an infected son who failed to come to terms with it while he was alive and now wants to atone. It’s a moving device, and an homage to her role in the 1992 Merchant Ivory film of Howard’s End but a less mannered or self-defining actress might have carried it without pulling focus.
Until 19 January
Trivium: when James Ivory cast Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Wilcox she was largely unavailable until a sizeable fee was negotiated and then when she arrived at rehearsals believed she was playing Margaret Shlegel, the much younger role taken by Emma Thompson.