The Inheritance at Young Vic, London – review round-up
Just as the National’s extraordinary Angels in America hits the headlines on its Broadway transfer, London gets another epic, seven-hour, two-part play set in New York’s gay community. American playwright Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance makes its world premiere at the Young Vic, in a production directed by Stephen Daldry that runs until May 19.
Lopez is a pretty big deal across the Atlantic, thanks to the phenomenal success of his Civil War play The Whipping Man, but he’s far from a household name in Britain. The biggest name attached to this show is the legendary Vanessa Redgrave, who makes an appearance late in the second half.
There are few directors working in theatre today with as impressive a CV as that of former Royal Court artistic director Daldry. Best known for his small-screen work on Netflix’s The Crown, his big-screen films The Reader and The Hours, and his runaway stage successes Billy Elliot and An Inspector Calls, he returns to the Young Vic for the second time this season, after his superb West End-bound production of The Jungle in December.
But is Lopez’s lengthy play worthy of its intimidating, seven-hour running time? Are we looking at the new Angels in America or something decidedly less heavenly? Will David Lan’s last season supply one more sparkling success for the Young Vic?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The Inheritance – Angels in America meets Howards End
Lopez’s play follows a group of middle-class gay men in Manhattan, exploring the lives of those growing up under the long-lasting legacy of the Aids epidemic. It’s inspired, though, by EM Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. So which is it, Tony Kushner copycat or adaptation of Edwardian England?
“In essence it’s a New York-set drama about the relationship between the generation of gay men that survived Aids and the generation that came after them,” explains Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “It is also – and stay with me here – a reasonably faithful, albeit wantonly postmodern adaptation of EM Forster’s Howards End.”
“That bald summary does scant justice, however, to a play that, in Stephen Daldry’s crystalline production, pierces your emotional defences, raises any number of political issues and enfolds you in its narrative,” writes Michael Billington (the Guardian, ★★★★). “While Lopez’s play has a literary framework, it teems with life and incident: watching it, as a neighbour remarked, is like bingewatching a box-set. It tells multiple stories.”
“The play could do with a trim but it has a box-set binge feel to it,” observes Ann Treneman (the Times, ★★★★). “It’s about conscience and the ghosts of the past but it’s also about fame, desire, betrayal and, deliciously, property.”
“There’s some cracking writing here,” says Holly Williams (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “A monologue about a Prague bathhouse that nails the switch from erotic ecstasy to shame; a ding-dong between a Republican property developer and a young radical that flashes as its arguments switchblade; a hilariously camp, champagne-flinging wedding bust-up.”
“There’s also some ropey writing, to be honest: Lopez too often tells rather than shows, and falls back on hackneyed phrases. A wince-inducing debate about what it means to be gay today is written like so many bullet points, and there are dollops of schmaltzy sentimentality.”
Most critics are on the same page – Lopez’s play is flawed but fascinating. It’s “witty, frequently outrageous and deeply moving”, according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★), “vast, imperfect and unwieldy”, according to Matt Trueman (Variety) and “moreish and chewy”, according to Brendan Macdonald (Exeunt). It “mostly sparkles”, says Emma Watkins (Broadway World, ★★★★).
Some reviews head to the extremes. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph,★★★★★) thinks it is “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”, but David Benedict (The Arts Desk, ★★★) complains of “ceaseless exposition”, and Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★) reckons “this is far too much time spent saying far too little of any substance”.
“Does it need to be so long?”, asks Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “Hell, no. But Lopez understands the narrative mechanisms of the best television. He keeps you hooked and Daldry and his cast, for the most part, make the narration-heavy piece come alive on stage. It has that compulsive Netflix quality that makes you want to keep firing up episode after episode – to travel with these men as their stories unfold.”
The Inheritance – Simple and stunning
Before Christmas, director Daldry breathed exhilarating, life-affirming energy into Good Chance Theatre’s remarkable refugee epic The Jungle, which heads to the Playhouse Theatre in July. Here’s an entirely different set of stories – how well does he tell them?
“Daldry directs with a gliding theatricality, and his minimalist production might have been passed down by Peter Brook,” observes Trueman. “A chorus of statuesque young men watch the action from the edges of Bob Crowley’s platform stage, which rises and falls, sometimes a huge communal table, sometimes a marble crypt or memorial.
“They tell the story collaboratively, squabbling over the story’s details or hopping into roles, but always playing together. Props are chucked on, moments hammed up, and the tone is one of boyish conviviality: a huge human story conjured from nothing.”
It’s “immaculately staged” and “sparing in its visual elements and ‘big’ moments”, explains Cavendish, “so that when they land, they land hard”.
“Daldry directs with rigorous simplicity and affords the writing plenty of breathing space to amplify Forster’s concerns: class, freedom, property, the idea of legacy, and above all the principle that we need to connect – by forging bonds with others, and by finding ways to bridge the gap between pragmatism and our passions,” adds Hitchings.
For Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★), it’s “masterly” and “stunningly moving”, for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), Daldry “captures beautifully” the “many different tones in the play” and for Macdonald Daldry, exhibits “immaculate instincts” as a director.
Even those less fond of the play are full of praise for the production, Shuttleworth acknowledging its “detail and sensitivity” and Benedict opining that “much of the more prosaic writing is disguised by Daldry’s adroit, fluid choreography” and Jon Clark’s “wide-ranging, wonderfully eloquent lighting”.
The Inheritance – Mostly men
Lopez’s play comes under some criticism in some quarters for its characters lack of diversity. “Privilege permeates the play,” writes Tripney. “They are all accomplished, educated, and culturally literate, they are all comfortably off, to a greater or lesser extent, they all have honed bodies, and they exist in a world in which women are almost entirely absent.”
“Lopez’s grand thesis about gay men is mostly a grand thesis about white middle-class gay men,” agrees Lukowski.
The almost all-male, multi-roling, British-American cast impresses enormously, however. For Trueman, the play is “beautifully acted”, and for Shenton, “every character feels utterly inhabited and palpable”.
“Its central figures are Kyle Soller’s Eric and his wickedly funny, horrendously vain boyfriend Toby (Andrew Burnap),” writes Hitchings. “Both performances are piercingly vivid, and as their entanglements become more complex there’s thrilling work around them, especially from Samuel H Levine, who doubles as slippery actor Adam and his troubled lookalike Leo.”
“Kyle Soller conveys every ounce of Eric’s instinctive decency and Andrew Burnap all of Toby’s sad selfishness,” agrees Billington. “Samuel H Levine switches brilliantly between the fast-rising Adam and the sinking Leo and John Benjamin Hickey as Henry embodies the emotional isolation of the stinking rich.”
“But the performance that best epitomises the play’s values is that of Paul Hilton who, as Morgan Forster and Walter, exudes a quiet humanity that suggests respect for the dead needs to be balanced by a love of the living.”
And what about Redgrave? She doesn’t actually take to the stage until well into the second half and when she does, she splits the critics. Some are delirious, some disappointed. For Lukowski, her late appearance is “a bit distracting” and for Treneman, her role seems “expendable”.
But she puts in a performance of “fragile poignancy”, according to Hitchings, she’s “achingly frail”, according to Cavendish, and she turns “what seems almost a glib intertextual reference to the Merchant Ivory film into something strangely, sadly luminous”, according to Williams.
“It’s not just her patient description of the scores of young men whom she cared for in their dying days that induces rapt concentration, it’s the ache of understanding and experience that she lends to her every look,” concludes Benedict.
The Inheritance – Is it any good?
Good doesn’t seem to quite cover it. The cast and the direction are both excellent, that’s for sure, but Lopez’s seven-hour, two-part epic tribute to Howards End and Angels in America divides opinion.
Some critics think it’s an instant modern classic and one of the most important American plays of the century. Others think it takes too long to do too little. Most reviews give it four stars, acknowledging its flaws, but simultaneously appreciating its remarkable, irresistible scope and its box-set binge-ability.