The Voysey Inheritance, Lyttelton, London SE1
Quick game of cards, anyone?
Harley Granville-Barker's critique of corrupt Edwardian upper middle classes is still on the money.
Review by Susannah Clapp, Observer, 30 April 2006
The plays of Harley Granville-Barker belong in the National. In 1904 he drew up plans for just such a theatre, detailing everything from the dramatic programme to pension scheme. Playing the producer was one of his many theatrical incarnations: actor, director, Shakespearean scholar and - before acquiring a millionaire wife and a hyphenated name - the author of dramas swingeing in their anti-capitalist attack and Shavian in their wit.
It was the acerbic, pre-hyphenated HGB who wrote The Voysey Inheritance, a solid Edwardian drama that is also a humorous, subversive plea. On the eve of inheriting the family firm, a young man discovers that his respected solicitor father has been speculating with his clients' money: originally, to make good the losses incurred by his own father's malpractice, later for giddy gambling pleasure. The son has to decide whether blowing the gaff will do more harm than trying to restore the fortunes by continued dishonesty. The audience sees a world in which business is built on confidence tricks and civilised life is a matter of keeping mum.
The ingredients are familiar: the moral dilemma, the devastating family dinner, the Edwardian types waiting for the 20th century to go off under them. Andrew Woodall blusters himself into the comic pink as a splenetic army officer; John Normington's clerk is literally bent by duplicity and class-consciousness.
There are a few creaks, particularly in the vicinity of Julian Glover who is bluff and clubbable but muffled. But Peter Gill, who directs, knows that a detailed sumptuousness, which transports the audience into another era, is part of the play's fascination.
Not all of Alison Chitty's complicated design works: it takes too long to change scenes, and it's hard to work out what the labourer who stands meaningfully beside the sitting room is actually doing with his wheelbarrow. But the main blast of the staging is magnificent: golden light glints on costly china and mutton-chop whiskers and makes ox-blood wallpaper seem snugly infernal. Gill skilfully makes some political points look like decor: as the men talk money, a fleet of maids silently clear up their mess.
This is a shrewd match of writer and director - both intent on getting to the centre of things. Gill introduces a soundscape that places the play in a jaunty, precarious, on-the-cusp-of-upheaval era, with murmurs of Herbert Asquith and JM Barrie and 'The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo'. He tilts the play towards a female future and there are meticulous performances from Kirsty Bushell as a beady freethinker, Lucy Briers, busy and furrowed, Doreen Mantle as the mother who worries about the Chinese empire as her family disintegrate, and Nancy Carroll as the new free woman. Together they give - more three-dimensionally than any Gosford Park - a portrait of an age and a steer for the future.
Granville-Barker, a champion of simplified stagings at a time when theatres liked to pep up their very literal productions by putting live bunnies on stage, ran what is now the Royal Court for some years. ....
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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