“Seeing a play on the West End that so unashamedly and honestly tackles gay male relationships (sexual and otherwise) feels in itself a remarkable achievement”
Epic in almost every sense of the word, ‘The Inheritance’, now enjoying a West End transfer after a sell-out run at the Young Vic, demands seven inspiring, moving, riveting hours to tell a story about how stories are shaped, and how they in turn shape those who listen to them.
A group of men are trying to tell their life stories but need help. Enter E. M. Forster, whose ‘Howards End’ forms the basis of Matthew Lopez’s ‘The Inheritance’, to help the boys along. Expertly played by Paul Hilton, ‘Morgan’ – with the help of the cast – becomes our narrator, introducing us to Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), whose rocky relationship the play centres around. Taking place almost entirely in Manhattan, New York, the couple face eviction, jealousies, successes and failures, all the while embracing and reflecting upon the lives of gay men over the last hundred years with each other and the group of friends that surrounds them.
At its core, Lopez has woven an intoxicating tapestry of a show that demonstrates the problematic importance of legacy and community, especially for gay men today. We hear lots of stories. How these stories come together is the nature of ‘inheritance’. How do we learn how to be gay men? From each other? And what happens when that community of exchange breaks down? Drawing on the emotional devastation of the late-eighties/early-nineties AIDS crisis, Lopez suggests the trauma of one generation should be the next one’s inspiration.
Bob Crowley’s sparse design is gorgeously simple, and along with Stephen Daldry’s astute direction, exposes the theatricality of the endeavour, whilst giving the cast plenty of space to play. The often cumbersome narrative elements to the play are expertly handled by the cast and director, who places his actors almost constantly on stage, listening, commenting and waiting for their turn. The need to flip on a dime from exposition to ‘scene’ is wittily and effectively handled by the cast at large. Burnap is mesmerising in his performance as Toby Darling, larger than life, hilarious, yet always hinting at a dark past, the reveal of which the audience really has a long wait for. Kyle Soller is equally courageous in his performance, able to be sentimental without parody and believably naïve all the way through to the end. Andrew Burnap and Syrus Lowe stand out in a tight, generous and incredible ensemble.
‘The Inheritance’ is essential viewing for everyone. Seeing a play on the West End that so unashamedly and honestly tackles gay male relationships (sexual and otherwise) feels in itself a remarkable achievement. I would argue Lopez could have trimmed down this story by a few hours and we wouldn’t have minded, but this emotionally stirring and inspirational production is well worth getting cramp for.
“A dynamic medley of devices, all enacted with the best intentions, but the overall effect is a bit of a jumble”
Within the first few moments of the play, we are thrown into the crux of the story: “One cannot be friends with the English”. This is articulated by Dr Aziz, the Muslim doctor at the heart of “A Passage To India”, based on E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel. Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian Independence Movement in the run up to the First World War, the question – how can we love one another in a world divided by culture and belief – is what drives this drama.
A young British schoolmistress, Adela Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs Moore, are visiting India, primarily for Adela to decide if she wants to marry Mrs Moore’s son, Ronny, a local city magistrate. During a trip to the fictitious Marabar Caves, Adela thinks she finds herself alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves (when in fact he is in an entirely different cave), and subsequently panics and flees; it is assumed that Dr. Aziz has attempted to assault her. Aziz’s trial, and its run-up and aftermath, bring to a boil the common racial tensions and prejudices between Indians and the British who rule India.
Simple8’s production tackles these issues, with a spirited mix of physical drama, expositional dialogue, internal monologue and original live music. A dynamic medley of devices, all enacted with the best intentions, but the overall effect is a bit of a jumble. The key topics lose weight under the lightness with which they are treated, which is no bad thing in itself, but the polemic is often wooden and the conversation peppered with laboured platitudes. There are exceptions. Asif Khan, who plays the sympathetic local physician Dr Aziz, and Liz Crowther’s Mrs Moore exemplify best the dichotomy of the relations among the Britons and the Indians. When they first meet in a mosque the doctor blindly chides the English woman for profaning his scared place, but is then disarmed by her respect for the native customs and they become friends. There is a rare warmth and empathy between these characters that unfortunately is too often absent elsewhere.
Where Simon Dormandy’s adaptation does shine, however, is when the characters step free from the action to address the audience. These more internalised moments allow for a crescendo of the live music, which elevates the drama immeasurably. The score, played live by the composer Kuljit Bhamra and musician Asha McCarthy is the highlight of the evening, but sadly underused.
Dormandy, who also directs with Sebastian Armesto, eschews the use of props and set, but unwittingly the characters and scenes suffer too. The complexity is reduced to a series of soundbites and the poignancy is often lost, although the committed cast do rescue the production and enable us to see the potential and the possible richness of the material that is hinted at. However, we never really get to the heart of the matter – the tensions and the dualities. Nor do we get a real sense of the over-riding mystery: Forster took great care in his novel to strike a distinction between the ideas of the “muddle” and “mystery” of India. This production, however, serves to blur the distinction. It is more muddle than mystery.