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Alex Benjamin

Preview Report: THE INHERITANCE at the Noel Coward Theatre

The Inheritance American writer Matthew Lopez’ enormous play has already written itself into theatrical canon since a widely beloved premiere at the Young Vic, so a move to the West End was a natural fit. A two-part play coming in at nearly 7 hours, The Inheritance reworks E. M. Forster’s Howards End into a vast story of gay men’s love in contemporary New York.

A representation of Forster himself guides us (in the first half) through a myriad of love stories which are united by a strained relationship with their own history. It’s romantic, tragic and massively entertaining, all poignantly shadowed by the history of AIDS.

Stephen Daldry’s production has transferred flawlessly to the Noel Coward Theatre, a fluid piece of large-scale storytelling that feels especially communal in this large space. Alongside its exuberant energy there’s a sense of ritual to it, enhanced by a simple but smart design from Bob Crowley which sets much of the action on a large platform which doubles as a sort of family table.

It’s a fitting choice for a play that’s so concerned with mythology – the social mythologies that bind together groups of people, the stories that help us to create our identity. Of the numerous kinds of ‘inheritance’ woven into the play the most striking is its spiritual belief that gay men throughout history are bound together by a chain of trust, teaching and legacy. But it’s a chain that’s been ruptured – 30 years on from the height of the AIDS crisis, Lopez depicts a culture grappling with a wound too fresh and real to become myth, too painful to bring people together, with an entire lost generation of gay men severing the connection between past and present.

Severed from their own history the play’s characters seem lost, drifting, struggling to come together as a community or find meaning in a world that seems to constantly turn against them. Without this to cling to they turn against each-other, and themselves; the narcissistic and often vicious playwright Toby Darling (vividly performed by Andrew Burnap) embodies this at its most extreme, but the various interlocking stories combine to a depiction of a community stuck in a desperate limbo.

What’s remarkable about this depiction is Lopez’ ability to balance a satirical and sharply critical look at this generation with a sincere love and empathy for the people that make it up. He suggests this ruptured state can only be resolved by repairing that bond with history. In service of this goal, the play does a fair bit of its own myth-making, repeatedly returning to a colonial house in upstate New York that served as a rare centre of compassion amid the horrors of AIDS. This provides an ethereal counterpoint to the drama that takes up the bulk of the play, and the moments where it emerges are often a source of jaw-dropping beauty and theatrical ingenuity.

The play inhabits a peculiar space between being an interrogation of myth and being an act of myth-making itself in a way that’s often fascinating but occasionally frustrating. In a lot of ways it’s a much narrower play than it seems to think it is - there’s obviously a lot to be said for finding scope in small personal stories, but the insular community of well-off New York gay men it depicts occasionally feels at odds with its faith in itself as a universal expression of gayness. In lengthy sections spent navigating the love lives of some of its less likable characters it can be easy to lose track of the play’s mythic power – but it’s never too long before it emerges again.

It might occasionally feel like a TV series or a thick novel (the play’s framing structure even refers to itself as a novel), but there’s a reason this resonates as theatre. Even if it doesn’t create a myth, it succeeds in creating a community, a bond, a sense of shared history which connects people throughout the auditorium of its new West End home. Given the time and space it needs to be truly expansive, The Inheritance accomplishes something quite remarkable. It’s not perfect, but it deserves to be seen.

This production is still being developed in preview performances. A press night review of the finished piece with a star rating will follow.