The Voysey Inheritance

Harley Granville Barker
RNT Lyttelton
(2006)

Had Harley Granville Barker been born a century later, there is little doubt that he would have been a Monsterist. This is the new movement that, as its first offering, brought Richard Bean's Harvest to the stage last year with such success that it was voted Best New Play by the Critics' Circle.

The group's manifesto seeks to present large scale, large cast plays in which the human condition is exposed through a dramatic story. Although his work is now sadly and unjustifiably neglected, The Marrying of Anne Leete at the Orange Tree being the only recent production, the polymath Granville Barker had very similar goals.

Peter Gill's revival of The Voysey Inheritance, written between 1903 and 1905, demonstrates that he was a superb writer who could combine family drama with an exploration of political and social issues. He is also one of a handful of playwrights who had the ability to understand business and financial issues and present them intelligibly on stage.

Julian Glover has great fun playing the patriarch of the Voysey family. He is an upstanding pillar of the community respected and trusted by all despite the kind of flaws that are generally only seen in Ibsen.

When he had taken over the family solicitor business from his father some thirty years before the play opens, he discovered that it was riddled with corruption. The only way to balance the books and also pay for the family excesses was to dip into clients' funds.

Old Mr V., a kind of latter-day Nick Leeson, soon caught the bug and began to enjoy the pleasures of investing other people's money for his own profit. Luckily, unlike Barings, the business survived and prospered under his leadership.

Unfortunately, with six adult children to choose from (although the two females were effectively disqualified by Edwardian society), it was his righteous, priggish son Edward who became his partner in the business. Dominic West is excellent in the part of a young man who is initially shocked to the core by his father's illegal activities.

West then really shows his acting talent as Edward becomes a new and confident man after inheriting the business and all of its ongoing problems. He soon realises that the only way that he can save the family, and many of the out of pocket investors is to perpetuate the fraud.

With the instincts of Robin Hood though, he seeks to steal from the rich in order to support the poor. Obviously this cannot go on and eventually, his bluff is called by John Nettleton as the elderly and sickeningly wealthy George Booth, such a close and trusting family friend that one of Edward's brothers is named for him.

The moral and ethical issues debated in The Voysey Inheritance are timeless. Each of the six Voysey children, not to mention their spouses, has a different view of life and within a three-hour span, they explore contemporary values from many varied and fascinating angles.

The dining-table debate goes beyond financial matters, particularly when youngest son Hugh or his wife Beatrice has the family's attention. Martin Hutson plays a struggling artist who talks about the impending disappearance of the upper-middle class with a prescience that is Chekhovian and somehow understands that within ten years, a World War will wipe them out forever. Kirsty Bushell as his cynical, novelist wife is able to comment wryly on a number of subjects and even touches on feminism and divorce.

The acting is of a universally high quality and draws excellent performances from all of the leading actors who also include Nancy Carroll as Alice Maitland. She is the woman who loves Edward but never more so than when he becomes a real man and takes on the unaccustomed role of fraudster.

However, Andrew Woodall as Booth, the son who chose a life in the army, giving a performance that might have been modelled on John Cleese, wins over his audience so well that he is in danger of stealing the show from those with bigger roles. Indeed, it would not be a surprise if he were nominated for a best supporting actor award.

This play could be littered with award winners as Peter Gill directs what could have been a very difficult play with a light touch and Alison Chitty's design must be an odds-on bet for a prize.

She presents two magnificent sets, each of which is based on a triptych. The first is a busy solicitor's office in town, reconstructed with meticulous accuracy. The other is a much used dining room of the lavish family home. With its rich colours, antiques and objets d'art, it is a thing of beauty in its own right and perfectly complements the men's evening dress and the ladies' beautiful frocks.

We should all be grateful to the National Theatre for its ability to stage large-scale plays of this type. If they are as good as this revival of The Voysey Inheritance, then the crowds should be packing it to the rafters.

Philip Fisher