I think you should see The Inheritance. The only other way I can think of starting this review is calling it a minor masterpiece, with all that implies. The Inheritance is an experience I want to share with the people I love (the only true sign a play’s special) and especially the other gay people in my life. I’m even going to read Howards End because of it.
In this play (inexplicably here in London before America), Matthew Lopez refracts E. M. Forster’s Howards End into a tangle of relationships between gay men in New York; Paul Hilton plays Forster himself, helping the characters to determine the narrative in the first half. It unfolds around a young, slightly mismatched couple: Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a home-oriented, kind man and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) a human mess. And the men in their lives, of course.
Full names are included for their very literary glory: despite its many references, the play isn’t stuffy, saved partly by Lopez’ deft and humane writing and partly by everything else.
Bob Crowley’s design of a long kind of dais is often surrounded by the cast of young men, occasionally bringing props up with them onto it. It’s largely just them and their narration in third person, refining the story between them, raucously or solemnly. In less sure hands it might be twee, but here it makes for as unobstructed and easy a production imaginable. We’re told things rather than shown them, but so what, when the telling’s the point and it’s this good?
This seven and a half hour epic doesn’t drag, in no small part due to its cast. Samuel H. Levine comes to play sex worker Leo more than his much more fortunate character Adam, both men caught up in Toby’s charismatic drive towards the spotlight; while as Adam, we see him twisted up with awkwardness, blossoming into a certain sensuality (dipping his fingers into the rips of his jeans), his curiously flat way of speaking becomes heartbreaking as Leo. They all have the marathon strength for this, from Hilton’s scribbly movements as Forster to everything Burnap does as Toby Darling, a character whom I fell for hard.
The Inheritance is sharply accurate when it comes to the intergenerational fumbling and dating in our community, as well as the imbalances of power which marriage and owning property exacerbate. It’s one of those pieces of art which comes down strongly against hoarding wealth and ignoring those in need, particularly those in our own community, while largely concerning itself with the very affluent liberal elite.
This is partly as Lopez is responding to Howards End, after all, and it should in no way be written off for this, though it does feel as if, more than twenty years after Angels in America, the scope of the gay American epic has somehow narrowed even further. The five main parts in no way have to be played by white actors despite the characters’ class status, and it’s a real problem deserving of attention that they all are, in this production.
The gays concerned here are uniformly masc-presenting and preppy, even if they’re not particularly masc-acting like Toby, or Michael Walters’ Jason #2. This is partly to allow them to take on other roles as needed, but it’s also a bit boring, and the end of Part One similarly presents a homogeneous representation of those who died from AIDS (no drag queens? No trans women?). Similarly, the discussions between the characters on gay identity now, or the ethics of your friend dating a gay billionaire Republican (#JasperWasRight, anyone?) might not feel particularly new or incisive to anyone who is gay and has to think and talk about these things constantly. The debates in Angels in America feel sharper, despite its age. And I do think it could have worked without Vanessa Redgrave.
But The Inheritance has so much affection at its heart and understanding of what it means to be a gay man in this world currently as well as a human being trying to keep hold of love. It’s worth seeing both parts in one day if possible, in a single amazing onslaught. The audience around me literally gasped and sobbed.
I have to talk about the end of Part One now: be warned. Eric goes to the house of an older friend of his who cared for many men with AIDS, years ago, whom he brought to die here with dignity, with care. Arriving at this now-empty house feels like coming home; then Eric begins to see men – actors we haven’t seen before – men everywhere. Boys. They introduce themselves to him, smiling. They are all the men who died here, whose wisdom, friendship, skill and love Lopez emphasises we all were robbed of.
Though the actors seemed more free to move at the Young Vic, with a few forced to stand in the boxes and merely smile at Eric, this moment hits harder than nearly everything I’ve seen in a theatre. My skin is on fire with goosebumps. It is a simple moment of magic.
The men sit with Eric around the dais, holding hands, as if in The Last Supper, and the stage looks almost as it did earlier in the play, when Eric’s friends crafted the story together, but this crowding now shows the earlier gatherings for what they were: depleted ranks. A halved community. The image and the realisation knock the breath out of you.
Part Two doesn’t quite reach the height of this moment again, but Lopez needs it to show us our two choices – burn, or heal – in reaction to truths like this one. Neither is easy, but perhaps we owe it to each other. The Inheritance makes you think that.
The Inheritance is on at Noël Coward Theatre until 19th January 2019. More info and tickets here.