Review by Benedict Nightingale, The Times
26 April 2006
Focusing his retroscope on the Edwardian era, the ageing Shaw called Harley Granville Barker "the most distinguished and incomparably the most cultivated person whom circumstances had driven into the theatre at that time". And, yes, Barker was a Leonardo of the drama: actor, director, producer, scholar, essayist and the one playwright who could outdo GBS when it came to writing mentally challenging work about big, bold issues.
The Madras House, about the place of women in society, and Waste, so candid about political shenanigans that it was banned in 1907, have their admirers; but Peter Gill's superficially lavish, emotionally lucid revival at the National convinces me that Barker wrote nothing finer than The Voysey Inheritance, which is about respectability, white-collar crime, the meaning of money and much else.
What's the awful news that Julian Glover's old Voysey, exuding the effortless geniality and grandeur of the fashionable London solicitor he is, breaks to his son and partner, Dominic West's Edward? That like his own father he has been ripping off the firm's clients by speculating with their trust funds while paying them enough interest to keep them happily ignorant. This is the "Voysey inheritance", revealed by Edward to his appalled siblings after the old man's funeral in what Max Beerbohm called "the finest scene of grim comedy in modern English drama".
The play is often funny, especially when Andrew Woodall as Edward's pompous, stupid army brother is braying out self- interested advice. Yet the irony is that Edward agrees with him. Instead of putting the firm into bankruptcy, the family into poverty and himself into jail, as he half-wishes, he takes up the Voysey burden, keeps the Voysey secret, continues the Voysey speculation, but tries to repair the Voysey defalcations. The next irony is that Barker thinks this apparent dishonesty the honest solution.
Partly, the play is an expose of hypocrisy, pretence and the Maxwell-like display people mistake for financial solidity. The sounds heard during each change of scene - grandiose reports of imperial British doings or rousing patriotic chords - support the attack. But Barker goes far further, using character after character to ask radical questions about the correlation of need and possession, the sources of wealth, the happiness money can and can't bring, the subtle corruptions it causes.
Gill cuts some of this, which is a pity but does mean that the play never gets too preachy. His cast - John Normington and John Nettleton especially impressive - ensure that life and feeling prevail. And the evolution of West's Edward, painfully meek at first, as authoritative as his father by the end, delivers the play's final irony. How does this mouse become a man? By embracing Inns of Court piracy and becoming a bit of a buccaneer himself. Strong stuff in 1905 and, I think, in 2006 too.
Box office: 020-7452 3000. This review appeared in late editions yesterday
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