Note: This is a review of the performances of both parts on Saturday 5th May 2018.
The reviews (with a couple of exceptions), the social media comments, and the standing ovation last Saturday night all tell a similar story of high praise for this new two part play. I was far from convinced, as I shall try to explain.
My principal issues relate to the text itself. The problems start at the beginning. We are confronted with a group of young men who appear to be in some sort of writing class, dreaming they are being advised by the ghost of E.M. Forster, who are wringing their hands because they don't know how to tell their story. New work is replete with similar instances of this kind of thing and, personally, I loathe it. Just get on and tell the damn story, decide how you're going to start and do it – don't inflict your indecision about how to do so on me. As far as I'm concerned it undermines suspension of disbelief from the beginning by deliberately pointing up the artificiality of theatre.
Playwright Matthew Lopez then has at least three ideas about what he wants to do. Firstly, to write an adaptation of Howard's End set in the contemporary United States (primarily Manhattan) – not having read the novel I can't comment on how successful this is. Secondly, to assert a link from a closeted EM Forster to the contemporary homosexual community and to argue that Forster might still be able to illuminate the characters and relationships of that community. Thirdly, to suggest that that contemporary community has forgotten what it was really like to live through the AIDS epidemic, and may be in a state of confusion about its identity.
Both points two and three could have made for a really powerful play. The best scene in the entire show features a dream meeting between the ghost of Forster (Paul Hilton) and a tormented young man Leo (Samuel H. Levine). At that moment it seemed to me there could have been a far subtler relationship built between those two worlds. But Lopez's approach was for me fatally flawed. Similarly to last year's disappointing The Divide at the Edinburgh Festival he decides that virtually everything has to be narrated. Actions are endlessly described and explained, sometimes by other characters, sometimes by the characters talking about themselves in the third person. Far too much is told rather than shown. The audience is almost never allowed to watch a scene, listen to a line, or observe a facial expression and form their own judgement. This is to dispense, in my view, with the most powerful weapon theatre possesses and rendered large stretches of the show very irritating, particularly in part 1.
The treatment of issues is also flawed – it rarely feels as if it is emerging organically from who these characters are, but rather as if the characters are there to be platforms for contrived debate – a good example is that between a single Republican and a mass of Democrats. Here, as elsewhere, Kushner's Angels in America revived so superbly at the National last year casts a long shadow.
There are also subsidiary problems. Characters quite often behaved in ways that just didn't convince me – to give just two examples the reaction of Eric's friends to his marriage midway through, and the way that Toby completely fails to spot that Adam is simply manipulating him – this latter is also a particularly annoying case of not leaving the audience in any doubt about the situation by having Levine's Adam directed to give a knowing, frankly evil smile to the audience as he leaves the scene.
Also problematic is the absence of any female character until Vanessa Redgrave finally appears in the last Act (the trailing of that appearance is another irritation). All male worlds can be powerfully believable (Britten's operatic masterpiece Billy Budd comes instantly to mind). But here I just never was convinced that none of these men had a female relative or friend of sufficient significance to appear on stage, and this hindered my believing in the characters world.
Finally, on the textual front and in evidence from the very beginning, the show is tiresomely self-referential about being a play. This is another thing I've seen too much of and really cannot abide. It almost always detracts from the dramatic power of a work and this is no exception.
The design (Bob Crowley) and direction (Stephen Daldry) is not a great deal of help. The playing area is a nearly bare rectangle, with an inner portion which rises and falls – often at ill advised moments which led this viewer to be distracted by trying to work out why the floor was moving at that particular moment. There is very little in the way of set but what little there is not without problems – there's a particular instance in the first part where a lead actor has to leave the stage carrying a chair with a balloon tied to it – presumably this is because the chair has to be cleared for the next scene, but it doesn't make sense for that character in that moment to be leaving with a chair. When the design does decide to show things the decisions struck me as odd – in particular why, having asked us to imagine so much, does it not trust us to do so with the crucial setting of Walter's house and the cherry tree – I think the power of those objects, so central to the narrative, is undermined rather than enhanced in the context of the overall production by making them visible. Overall, the production achieves a sense of New York City which is much less convincing than that of Elliott's NT Angels.
Daldry also makes a mistake, I think, about when to show the dead and when not to show them – this particularly applies to the ghosts of AIDS victims, and the presence of the ghost of Walter for Henry. Again, it reduces the scope for audience imagination.
To be fair to Daldry in general his management of the large ensemble is in itself perfectly sound, but in the overall context, for me, somehow gestures, touches and expressions rarely found that electricity of truly great theatre. One final note on production – was all the near nudity really needed? - I wasn't convinced – and there's a particularly problematic scene where one is supposed to believe a character is wasting away with AIDS while the muscles of his upper body look thoroughly healthy – again a telling contrast with the recent Angels in America which made those physical disintegrations powerfully believable.
The ensemble, to their credit, work enormously hard to make this show work and it isn't their fault that for me it didn't – there are some strong individuals playing multiple roles whom I'd be interested to encounter again. Paul Hilton, doubling as Forster and Walter, has the best material to work with and gives the finest performance of the evening – the show misses him when he's offstage, I think most of all because he's one of the few figures concerning whom the audience is left some freedom to make their own interpretations. Vanessa Redgrave (Margaret) did bring tears to my eyes but to be frank I think that's a credit to Redgrave rather than the script. Kyle Soller (Eric) and John Benjamin Hickey (Wilcox) do their very best with what they're given and I'd like to see both again with better writing to work with. The written characterisations of both Andrew Burnap's Toby and Samuel H. Levine's Adam are particularly short on subtlety and neither performance for me transcended the flaws of the writing.
This is a show making a very clear play on people's emotions. Afterwards, I reflected on whether there was a parallel with the dreadful NT Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer, but I think this is finally unfair because The Inheritance is a far stronger show. It obviously has moved people, but I came away feeling the occasional tears in my eyes, apart from at one of the very final images, had been earned less honestly than in other recent shows on the same themes - because I never quite believed in the overall world being presented. This was in striking contrast for me with three other shows in recent years, all concerned with similar themes, all of which immersed me and moved me to a far greater extent - Angels in America at the National, My Night with Reg and The York Realist at the Donmar.
As noted at the beginning of this post I am clearly in a very small minority in my reaction to this show. I don't think I set out with any preconceptions, I hadn't read the reviews though had seen the star ratings, my only real reservation was about the length, after a heavy few weeks at work. Matthew Lopez has potential and I feel that if he'd be less clever clever and accept that what are perhaps currently thought of as the old fashioned powers of theatre still have real life in them he could go far. But for me, on this occasion, he hasn't done so.