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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Voysey Inheritance
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2006

Harley Granville Barker was a contemporary and friend of Shaw, and shared Shaw's rare ability to write plays that were About Something and still engrossing and entertaining.

The only thing he lacked was Shaw's caustic and epigrammatic wit (though there are some good jokes here), and that even helped make his plays more realistic and emotionally powerful. This new production of his 1906 play is the first since the National Theatre did it in 1989, and it's as powerful and relevant as a hundred years ago.

The inheritance of the comfortably well-off Voysey family is fraud. In the opening scene the solicitor father calmly explains to his son and partner that he has been embezzling client funds for decades. Indeed, his own father had been doing it for decades before him, and he fully expects his son to carry on the family tradition. It's either that or confess all and send them both to jail.

At father's death, son presents the situation to his large family, only to discover that they are more afraid of scandal than of living on the profits of crime. So son dedicates himself to a lifetime of drudgery, carrying on the legitimate parts of the business and funnelling all profits into repaying the stolen money, hoping to accomplish as much as possible before someone catches on.

But he hasn't taken into account his father's all-seeing clerk, or the family friend who ironically doesn't trust son as much as he did father.....

And so the situation is set up for engaging and engrossing Shavian discussions on questions of morality, of the evils or virtues of wealth, of marital politics and - most interestingly - on the failings and accomplishments of the comfortable English middle class.

That the Voysey family's dependence on ill-gotten money for their complacent lifestyle is only a few degrees more corrupt than their neighbours' inherited or exploitative-capitalist wealth is almost taken for granted. But the same upbringing that allows them not to be particularly bothered by this also produced the hero's moral commitment to doing as much good as he can in the time he has.

In fact, one of the nicest things about the play is the way the members of the Voysey family, introduced as satiric types, prove to be more rounded, morally complex and attractive than we first think. The blustering military brother is a comic figure throughout, but then someone notes that he has exactly the qualities needed to make men out of the wretched recruits in his command. The money-grubbing sister-in-law proves a source of good common sense and unfeigned sympathy for others.

In short, the play guides us, through real scrutiny and sceptical dissection, to the conclusion that the middle class is both decadent and dying on the one hand, and the source of all the excellent English virtues on the other. Shaw would have laughed at the irony; Granville Barker makes us draw some guarded optimism from it.

Acting and direction in this new production are uneven. Dominic West is appropriately stolid and manly as the self-sacrificing son, though we want more sense of the weight of his burden affecting him. As the father, Julian Glover lacks the demonic fire and self-confidence that would make the man a holy monster, and comes across as just blustering. (Conversely, Andrew Woodall, as the military brother, could have blustered more and been more comic.).

John Nettleton is a bit too soft as the quietly blackmailing clerk, Martin Hutson has some strong moments as an artistic brother and Kirsty Bushell as his coolly practical wife, and Nancy Carroll is lovely as the girl you can spot from the start will eventually be the hero's reward for his virtue.

Peter Gill's direction is a little too slow and stodgy, as if afraid that the more passionate moments might have tipped over into melodrama (He should have taken the risk). He is not helped by Alison Chitty's over-elaborate Victorian sets that require Victorian-length delays to change between scenes.

 
Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Voysey Inheritance - National 2006