Legacy Issues

By Ian Shuttleworth

Angels in America. I just had to get that out there right at the start. Plays should always be judged on their own terms, but the terms of The Inheritance are to go out and court comparison with Tony Kushner’s 1990s ‘gay fantasia on national themes’ (revived last year at the National Theatre).

So, here are the comparisons. Both plays are sprawling two-parters (The Inheritance has six roughly hour-long acts, presented over two evenings or over nine-and-a-half hours on those days when you can catch both parts at once). Both set out to anatomise a generation of gay men, focusing on New York City. Aids stalks through both, the grimmest of reapers.

Now here are some more. Kushner’s work was set in the 1980s, when Aids was a very current horror: Matthew Lopez sets The Inheritance in the present, where it has to be repeatedly but artificially invoked as casting a long shadow. Kushner wrote two plays, viewable separately, but forget about any possibility of watching only part two of The Inheritance. Above all, look at Angels’ subtitle: that word ‘fantasia’ signals it’s packed with huge, unashamed drama. The Inheritance, in comparison, is several hours of guys telling a story, only occasionally acting it out.

Because, even more than he intended an update on Angels, Lopez set out to write a modern, gay American version of the novel that changed his life. It’s unsurprising but disappointing that he couldn’t escape a novelistic feel. And what is that book? It’s EM Forster’s Howards End. Yup. So, the story is about a conscientious but diffident character (Margaret Schlegel in the novel, Eric Glass in the play) who’s informally bequeathed a country house, which stands for all the most admirable human values; the existence of the legacy is concealed, but eventually house and owner are brought together after a series of complex relationships.

But wait: there’s more. Forster himself appears as a character here, critiquing the narrative collectively generated by the dozen or so young men on the stage. And Vanessa Redgrave, who played the first owner of Howards End in the Merchant Ivory film version, makes a brief appearance in the final hour as the housekeeper of this place.

It’s an immensely ambitious piece of work, and director Stephen Daldry marshals the cast with both detail and sensitivity, led by Kyle Soller in fine form as Eric. Alas, it’s a far better production than the play deserves. David Lan’s artistic directorship of the Young Vic was magnificent in all kinds of ways, but this show, which he programmed in before his departure and now runs after it, doesn’t end the Lan era on anything like a high note.

Until 19 May at the Young Vic Theatre, London SE1, 020-7922 2922, www.youngvic.org