Noël Coward Theatre, London – until 19 January 2018
When Matthew Lopez’s play The Inheritance opened at the Young Vic earlier this year it immediately caused a stir. This wasn’t just another epic piece of theatre, running in two parts over seven hours, it was another epic gay-themed play and comparisons to the National’s recent production of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America were inevitable. In truth, the two plays may have similar themes but otherwise there is little in common save the running time.
Lopez’s play reworks the story of E.M.Forster’s Howards End, setting the action in New York more than 30 years after the major events of Kushner’s groundbreaking opus. In a shrewd theatrical device, Forster appears to a group of aspiring writers to assist them out of their writers’ block. In the process, we are introduced to liberal lawyer Eric Glass and his partner of seven years Toby Darling, who has just gained celebrity as an author and is currently bashing out a stage script.
By chance, they meet and befriend the bookish Leo, who aspires to an acting career but needs a leg up, which Toby is more than happy to offer as his script is optioned by a producer. In the meantime, the self-deprecating Eric entertains the ailing Walter, who has moved in upstairs while his townhouse is being renovated. The pair share common philosophies and Walter enlightens Eric to the realities of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged New York in the eighties and nineties.
The joy of this play is found in the rise and fall in the temperature of Lopez’s writing. His characters are painstakingly crafted, without appearing heavy handed and they move the story on in sizable but absorbing chunks. There is no slavish attempt to ape Forster’s written style, which simply wouldn’t work, but he does credit the author with an overwhelming sense of humanity. It’s this trait of Forster’s writing that Lopez draws on and despite the numerous socio-political themes that ricochet throughout the play, it is this that gives the play its emotional strength.
Despite a quality creative team including Stephen Daldry as director and Bob Crowley as designer, this is very much the author’s night. Scenes of great humour and occasionally even eroticism sit easily beside political debate and it’s deeply satisfying to note that the author doesn’t pander to the vanity of the current POTUS by mentioning his name. There is balance however, as Walter’s Republican partner Henry – a swaggering John Benjamin Hickey – supremely tears a strip off an over-zealous armchair liberal pointedly trying to undermine him. Walter’s epic monologue, delivered so earnestly by a sublime Paul Hilton, hammers home the devastating effect of AIDS and more pointedly, the country that deserted its citizens as they suffered and died.
It is the beauty of Lopez’s writing that allows him, at least partially, to get away with such a long play. Part One could quite easily pass for a complete full-length piece, albeit one with loose ends to tie up. It is in tying up those strands of the story for Part Two that Lopez begins to repeat himself, drawinging moments out unnecessarily. The character of Forster long abandoned, reappears to explain why he wrote Maurice and in a nod to the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howards End, Vanessa Redgrave steals focus as a mother who stayed on at Walter’s home, long after her son had died. In fact, Redgrave never made the second press night and the role was admirably undertaken by Amanda Reed.
The Inheritance has been rightly lauded as a major piece of 21st century theatre and Lopez has a gift for crafting argument and dialogue with sensitivity and innate understanding. Does it need to be seven hours long? Hell no, but it’s a gripping story, eloquently reminding us that unless we have a conversation with our past, we will never be able to understand the future.
Runs until 19th January 2019Reviewed by Paul ValePhoto credit: Marc Brenner