“A work of rare grace, truth and beauty”
Stop the clocks; the race is won. Here is the play of this year and last year and quite possibly next year as well.
Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour epic takes EM Forster’s classic 1910 novel Howards End and transposes its ever-relevant themes of wealth, family and belonging to the lives and loves of a group of busy, chattering, cultured gay men in New York in the 21st century. This is a work of rare grace, truth and beauty and is undoubtedly this century’s answer to Angels in America – and then some.
Stephen Daldry directs a production of remarkable fluidity and suppleness, which unspools on a bare raised platform (be warned about the dubious non-rake of too many rows in the stalls; I couldn’t see properly from my £95 premium seat). A playful ensemble of young men – it’s a six-hour wait for the lone female, in the form of Vanessa Redgrave, in a knowing wink to her role in the film version of Howards End – jostle to tell their story. Lopez’s masterstroke is to include Forster, or Morgan, himself as a character, who gently helps the men shape their narrative.
Polite, reserved and quietly open-mouthed at the social liberties enjoyed by gay men now, Morgan is a treasure of a part, afforded the performance of the evening by a courteous, bespectacled Paul Hilton.
The tent-pole of the action is the relationship between activist Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and writer Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), who live in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. Lopez nails New York’s particular obsession with geography, property and Park-proximity, as Eric’s treasured family house is threatened and he starts to spend more time with pragmatic businessman Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey).
Toby, meanwhile, develops an obsession with young actor Adam, who bears an uncanny resemblance to rent boy Leo (both played by Samuel H Levine).
One of the central themes in the Forster novel is the importance of finding, literally and metaphorically, one’s place in the world and this is reworked by Lopez with notable humanity and empathy, as he interweaves an unshowy but perceptive overview of gay life during the past 40 years. Time spins on, Toby spins out of control and Trump gets elected to the despair of Eric and his friends, although Lopez is never above poking fun at the occasional liberal-cultural pretension. Part One is cosier and more joyous, Part Two more jagged and uncontained and suffers from too little Morgan.
Soller’s work as the endlessly good-natured Eric gleams with emotional openness, while Burnap furnishes the damaged Toby with a remarkable repertoire of seemingly insouciant gestures that are full of careful calculation. I can give The Inheritance no higher praise than to say that I think it would make Forster himself very, very proud.
“A passionately audacious, entirely successful theatrical epic”
The talk of the town during its initial Young Vic run this summer, Matthew Lopez's two-part epic remains an essential, transformative theatrical experience in its West End transfer. It's as beautiful as it is harrowing, as searingly sad as it is rambunctiously funny, as intellectually rigorous as it is joyously accessible, and as thrillingly entertaining as it is deadly serious.
What starts as a modern day, gay-centric riff on EM Forster's novel Howard's End becomes a moving, gripping meditation on the power of storytelling, family ties, the basic human need for connection, and collective responsibility. It is, in every sense, a Big Experience but it's the vivid characters and their all-too-relatable issues that draw us in; it's as compulsive as a soap opera, or an unputdownable book. If the comedic elements feel broader here than they did in the smaller house, some subtle rewriting of the formerly less satisfying second part means that the pleasure and tension now never let up: you emerge from the theatre emotionally drained but exhilarated.
The blend of magic realism, political fury, camp popular culture references and an endearing but beleaguered gay man at the centre, means the Angels In America comparisons are inevitable. Both plays are clarion calls to challenge the American sociopolitical status quo, both distressingly evoke the panic and unease in New York City at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and both end their first parts with breathtaking coups de théâtre that make you long for the next instalment. Lopez is more successful though at making the white-hot diatribes sound authentically like characters speaking rather than just being manipulated as political mouthpieces.
Lopez's sparkling, erudite text may owe its plot to Howard's End, its attitude and scope to Kushner's opus and its anger to Larry Kramer's seminal AIDS drama The Normal Heart, but its core is entirely its own. Stephen Daldry delivers an enthralling, clear, swift staging which reminds forcibly that he's a phenomenal director. You don't see simplicity and theatricality melded together like this very often.
The beating heart of the story is thirty-something New Yorker Eric Glass, an adorable gay Everyman whose natural instincts for kindness and compassion inevitably make his life harder than it needs to be. Kyle Soller is remarkable in the role, marrying kooky eccentricity with fierce intelligence and an honest-to-goodness niceness that never cloys. As the story deepens and darkens, Soller turns up the emotionalism to devastating effect, and if he isn't on every Best Actor award shortlist for this year there's no justice.
Equally terrific is Andrew Burnap as Eric's mismatched partner Toby Darling, a monstrously self-regarding but puppyishly charming writer, his finger constantly hovering over the self-destruct button. Burnap brilliantly evokes the terrified child beneath the urbane but dangerous exterior, and is often wincingly funny as an overgrown kid whose relationships with other men tend to be better in bed than out of it.
Samuel H Levine displays virtuosic versatility in the dual roles of the Manhattan rich kid who entrances the couple, and his doppelgänger, a desperate hustler whose craving for human warmth means he will take almost any kind of emotional or physical battering. Levine's astonishing ability to turn from arrogant, supercool Adam to pitiful, cowering Leo in a split second is the stuff theatregoers memories are made for: it's a star-making performance.
There is beautiful, haunting work from Paul Hilton as an older friend of Eric's, painfully recalling the bad old days of the initial AIDS cases, and also as an all-seeing, closeted E. M. Forster, simultaneously thrilled and discomfited by the sexual freedoms afforded to modern day gay men.
John Benjamin Hickey – utterly compelling – convincingly makes a case for rich gay men d'un certain age who voted Republican because they were so cut off from their feelings that they didn't even think about what they were actually supporting. The icing on an already rich cake is Vanessa Redgrave as an AIDS-generation mum who failed her son but is determined to make it up to humanity at large. She will break your heart.
This is that rare beast, a passionately audacious, entirely successful theatrical epic that fully realises its breathtaking ambitions, filtering huge themes through the individual stories of characters we come to care very deeply about. It is also cracking entertainment.
The title refers to many things: the handing down of property and belongings, family legacy, the passing on of illness, the continuation of guilt, the way childhood experiences can shape or break an entire life. Trust me, you don't want to be that person at the dinner table a decade from now, wishing you'd got tickets to The Inheritance while everybody else at the party still raves about it.
This is the sort of exciting, engrossing theatre that makes you wonder why people bother with Netflix. It may be long, but I didn't check my watch once.
“Perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”
To watch The Inheritance is to pass from engaged but detached interest into a realm of total absorption before arriving at a state of emotionally shattered but elated awe. Divided into two parts and running to six hours (excluding intervals), Matthew Lopez’s American epic of gay lives present and past invites comparison with Tony Kushner’s 1990s master-work Angels in America; the astounding thing is it withstands that scrutiny.
It also stands consciously in the shadow of EM Forster’s Howards End (1910): it incorporates elements of the novel, an incarnation of the author and, in Stephen Daldry’s immaculately staged world-premiere, stars Vanessa Redgrave (who was in the 1992 Merchant Ivory film) as the sole female character. She provides the heart-rending pay-off to a theatrical marathon that instantly looks like a modern classic, perhaps the most important American play of the century so far.
The idea of ‘inheritance’ develops in manifold ways. In the first instance, the emphasis is literary. A young man (who we will come to identify as an actor called Adam, and also his down-and-out rent-boy doppelganger Leo) is attempting, amid a chorus of thrusty-angsty budding-writer types, to find a route into ‘his’ story about his friends. Enter the figure – stiff, suited, Edwardian English – of Forster like a creative-writing fairy-godfather. ‘Morgan’, as he’s familiarly known, spurs the youth into an act of appropriation.
The casual opening line of Howards End – “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister” becomes “One may as well begin with Toby’s voicemails” and we get a pungent introductory anecdote about the latter (dashing novelist, narcissist, Broadway contender too) drunkenly heaving his guts over Meryl Streep at a party in the Hamptons, upstate New York.
With Paul Hilton’s ‘Morgan’ by turns watching and encouraging those concerned to dig deeper into themselves, registering with quiet fascination the tactility, sexual freedom and rights unknown to his age of closeted homosexuality, what begins as a larky, camply arch ‘work-shop’ (like a Greenwich Village answer to Hector’s lessons in The History Boys) draws you into a richly imagined world that has the innate thrill of a page-turner.
The most overt ‘theft’ from the novel concerns the pivotal, thwarted inheritance of an old farm-house owned by the dying Walter (again portrayed by Hilton, loosely the Ruth Wilcox ‘role’ in the book, played in the film by Redgrave). Walter bequeaths the house to the kindly, self-doubting, struggling Eric (Kyle Soller), the suddenly spurned husband-to-be of Andrew Burnap’s fickle Toby - only for Walter’s death-bed will to be destroyed by his long-term partner: the rich, Trump-supporting Republican Henry.
The arc of this complex, often waspishly funny and physically uninhibited tale (openly narrated, RSC Nicholas Nickleby-style, as it gallops along) drives towards an understanding that the rustic idyll where Walter once tended to dying, stigmatised Aids-infected men belongs at a spiritual level to Eric.
With its beautiful cherry tree dating back to George Washington, it emblemises the good society America found, in isolated pockets, amid the devastation wrought by the Eighties ‘plague’ but which must blossom again as the legacy of those years, registered in self-destructive, emotionally self-protective behaviour, lingers cruelly on.
What’s stunning is that something so overt in its themes should make you feel you’re living and breathing the issues, not being lectured about them. The performances are (to a man in this almost all-male affair_ exquisitely truthful – doubly so from Samuel H Levine as the contrastingly preyed-upon Adam and Leo.
Stephen Daldry’s fleet, astute production, deploying an often bare-foot ensemble of 13 on and around a simple raised (subtly convertible) platform, is sparing in its visual elements and ‘big’ moments so that when they land, they land hard.
Part One ends with the heart-rending sight of young men in their prime – the ghosts of those who died after contracting Aids – clustering in silent amity around Eric. Part Two holds back Redgrave’s achingly frail appearance like a final release yet shows this silver-haired mother, still mourning the gay son she spurned and saw dying (“his voice no more than a croak”), as having found almost none herself. Star ratings are almost beside the point when confronted by work of this magnitude but hell, yeah, five.
“Like immersing yourself in a great novel. A glorious achievement”
“A crystalline production… pierces your emotional defences, raises any number of political issues and enfolds you in its narrative”
This is quite something: a two-part, seven-hour play by Matthew Lopez dealing almost exclusively with New York gay men. You could say it’s like Angels in America crossed with Howards End in that it deals with the bitter inheritance of Aids and the spiritual qualities of a house. That bald summary does scant justice, however, to a play that, in Stephen Daldry’s crystalline production, pierces your emotional defences, raises any number of political issues and enfolds you in its narrative.
Lopez’s debt to EM Forster is palpable. There is even a character called Morgan who kickstarts the play by addressing a group of young men and effectively urging them to look in their hearts and write. This prompts a story about a young couple, Eric and Toby, that ripples outward. Eric is a kindly, humane lawyer who lives in a posh Upper West Side apartment. Toby, his longtime lover, is an egotistical, sharp-tongued writer whose success as a novelist and dramatist is based on the denial of his past. Their impending marriage is threatened both by Eric’s loss of the family apartment and by Toby’s fixation on Adam, the charismatic star of his play.
This leads to the same clash of values that animates Howards End. The liberal Eric is drawn to a real-estate developer – named Henry Wilcox, like the embodiment of materialism in Forster’s book – who has recently lost his own partner, Walter. One of the best and funniest scenes shows Henry shocking a roomful of Eric’s left-leaning friends by declaring he is a Republican. As in Forster’s book, a property is pivotal. Walter always wanted Eric to have an upstate house he owned that, at the height of the Aids epidemic, he turned into a refuge for the dying. We wait to see whether Eric will ever come into his rightful inheritance.
While Lopez’s play has a literary framework, it teems with life and incident: watching it, as a neighbour remarked, is like bingewatching a box-set. It tells multiple stories. One of the most intriguing shows the success-driven Toby becoming involved with a rent boy, Leo, who is not only a lookalike for Adam but also tests the moral probity of all who encounter him. Lopez is also unafraid to periodically stop the plot and clear the stage for an impassioned debate: one of the most intense is about the status of gay culture which, having fought so long against oppression, now finds itself in danger of being co-opted. It is Eric, however, who cuts through the swirling opinions by urging the need to honour the past while living fully in the present.
This, in a nutshell, is the Forsterian message that emerges from the play. I admired its rollercoaster energy and high entertainment value, but I found its exclusive maleness limiting. The only woman we meet does not appear until the end, when Vanessa Redgrave makes a moving appearance as a mother who belatedly learned to love her gay son and who now cherishes Walter’s rural sanctuary. I also felt occasionally, as with Adam’s graphic description of his orgiastic experience in a Prague bathhouse, that Lopez was exhibiting his own virtuosity at the expense of the character’s believability.
In Daldry’s production, staged on a Bob Crowley set that looks like a stripped Japanese table, the prime emphasis is on narrative clarity. The performances, from a mixed American-British cast, are also exemplary. Kyle Soller conveys every ounce of Eric’s instinctive decency and Andrew Burnap all of Toby’s sad selfishness. Samuel H Levine switches brilliantly between the fast-rising Adam and the sinking Leo and John Benjamin Hickey as Henry embodies the emotional isolation of the stinking rich. But the performance that best epitomises the play’s values is that of Paul Hilton who, as Morgan Forster and Walter, exudes a quiet humanity that suggests respect for the dead needs to be balanced by a love of the living.
“A pretty monumental achievement”
“An incredible feat”
Spread over two parts and running to more than seven hours of theatre, American playwright Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, receiving its world premiere, documents the experiences of a generation of New York gay men who came of age in the years after Aids ravaged their community. It’s a play about the space in the world left by those lost men.
Comparisons with Angels in America are inevitable, but Lopez draws his primary inspiration from EM Forster’s Howards End. Lopez originally intended to write a more straightforward adaptation of the 1910 novel, albeit one set in the world of gay men, but over time it bloomed into something bigger.
Forster exists in the play as a watchful presence, helping a group of young men tell a story, while occasionally questioning their choices. The story being told is that of Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), his boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) and their circle of friends. As in Forster’s novel, property and money are key influences in the decisions the characters make. This is also true here. Kind, idealistic lawyer Glass knows he will soon have to move out of his family’s rent controlled apartment, while Darling, who has just written his first novel and is adapting it for the stage, had a difficult upbringing and craves emotional and financial stability.
Their relationship is complicated by the arrival in their lives of charismatic young would-be actor Adam (Samuel H Levine) and Eric’s growing friendship with Walter, an older, ailing gay man who has been with his partner, Henry Wilcox, for 36 years. As in the novel, Wilcox is both stupendously wealthy – he’s a Republican, of course – and in possession of a country house which turns out to be far more than just another asset in his property portfolio: it’s a repository of souls, a place where, 30 years ago, ill, stigmatised and abandoned men went to receive care.
Lopez sticks pretty closely to Forster’s plot, only veering away from it in occasion (there’s a cum-drenched Czech bath house scene which definitely wasn’t in the original). Eric and Toby occupy more or less the same place in the narrative as the Schlegel sisters, Wilcox is Wilcox and the Leonard Bast character takes the form of Leo, a young rent boy (also played by Levine) who a lonely Toby invites home for sex one night.
The two parts of Stephen Daldry’s production operate in slightly different ways. The first half does the legwork, but it also contains some great, rich speeches into which the actors dive as if they were swimming pools. Paul Hilton, who plays Forster and Walter, and is wonderfully delicate and poignant as both, gets to deliver an extraordinary speech about being a gay man in the 1980s and watching his friends sicken, describing the fear people felt, the repulsion, and the impulse to flee. It movingly illustrates the huge emotional and social toll that Aids took on a generation.
‘You must face the past,” Forster implores the younger characters and that feels like Lopez’s key message; the necessity to remember what was fought for, what was lost and at what cost.
In the first part, Eric and Toby’s friends are part of the fabric of their lives and thus always present on stage. Bob Crowley’s set is essentially a large communal table around which they sit, watching whoever is in the spotlight.
In the second part, they are less present and Forster also retires himself from the narrative, for the story is not his, but not before one of the characters lambasts him for not being brave enough to publish Maurice in his lifetime. There’s a new resident in the White House too: the whole world has changed. The focus falls upon Toby’s decline and Eric’s burgeoning relationship with Henry, though this latter plot strand never quite convinces.
The cast is superb and the performances throughout are exquisitely pitched. It’s an incredible feat. Soller anchors the piece emotionally, he’s its heart, and Levine is a hoot as Adam while also successfully making Leo feel like more than just a one-note character, a figure to be pitied. Burnap ensures Toby is charismatic enough to stop him from being insufferable.
And what of Vanessa Redgrave? Her role is small and she doesn’t appear until near the end of the second part but she ‘Vanessa Redgraves’ the hell out of it: warm, wistful, someone who has made a peace of sorts with the choices they have made.
Privilege permeates the play. Leo aside, they are all accomplished, educated, and culturally literate, they are all comfortably off, to a greater or lesser extent, they all have honed bodies, and they exist in a world in which women are almost entirely absent.
On more than one occasion I was reminded of Hanya Yanaghhara’s A Little Life, a book that while glimmeringly written put its characters through the emotional mill and seems on a mission to make its readers weep.
Does it need to be so long? Hell, no. But Lopez understands the narrative mechanisms of the best television. He keeps you hooked and Daldry and his cast, for the most part, makes the narration-heavy piece come alive on stage. It has that compulsive Netflix quality that makes you want to keep firing up episode after episode – to travel with these men as their stories unfold.