Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance opens with much heart searching about the art of storytelling. It turns out to be a masterclass in that art. It all starts with a group of young gay men in New York unable to get started on their writing until the arrival of Morgan (as in Edward Morgan Forster) who points out the plots and characters just waiting in their midst to tell their tales. There is Eric Glass (played with great warmth and honesty by Kyle Soller) and his long-term boyfriend, Toby Darling (a cracking performance by Andrew Burnap). And so the story begins.
And it turns out to be a somewhat familiar one. E M Forster is a character in the play (intervening in events, insisting on the real not the wished-for remarks, honouring the truth of the past) but he also donates to it the plot of Howard’s End. Eric takes the part of the idealistic Margaret Schlegel, while Toby is Helen. Leonard becomes the rent boy Leo and Henry Wilcox remains plain, old Henry Wilcox, now a billionaire property tycoon. Lopez has brought in the twists and turns of the original plot – the returned umbrella, the house in the country with its symbolism and secrets, the interrupted wedding reception, the stolen inheritance, the revelation of a shameful affair.
This is not to say, though, that this is merely some homage to Forster or, indeed, that you need to know the original (or at least the Merchant Ivory film) for it to make sense. My American neighbour didn’t know either and was as drawn into this long story as I was. Lopez tells his tale brilliantly and there are luminous moments as well as some cracking jokes.
Did I say long? The Inheritance runs to seven hours over two parts but maybe that plays to our binge-watching habits these days. It certainly keeps you gripped throughout and you do feel for these characters. When Eric is about to lose his family home, during the increasingly acrimonious break-up of Eric and Toby, when their neighbour Walter’s bequest to Eric is destroyed, you just want to know what happens next (even if you already do).
Could it be trimmed? Quite probably and there are moments when Lopez slips into sentimentality or his debates about the future of gay culture slow the pace. But this is, for the most part, engrossing stuff and the standard of the players is exceptional. While Eric and Toby are central, their friends are also on the table-like stage or sitting around it most of the time. Of these, Adam (Samuel H Levine), the young rich wannabe actor who comes between Eric and Toby is the most pivotal. His telling glance at the audience when he realises his power over Toby evoked guffaws and his switch to the portrayal of the hopeless rent boy Leo gave an idea of this actor’s breadth.
John Benjamin Hickey was a fine Henry Wilcox and Vanessa Redgrave (who starred in the film version of Howard’s End), the one woman in the cast who appears only in the final act, brought a moving melancholy to the play’s close. The greatest accolade must, though, go to Paul Hilton who plays both Morgan (Forster) and Walter, the partner for 36 years of Henry Wilcox. He befriends Eric and decides to bestow his (unnamed) house on him but also introduces Eric to the reality of the AIDS epidemic conjuring Eric’s own friends into the places of his own doomed ones. It paves the way for the luminous climax of the first half of the play when Eric finally visits the house in the country and grasps both its symbolism and history along with that of the whole gay community.
The Inheritance is a two-part play at The Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LZ until 19 May 2018. Production images by Simon Annand. For more information and tickets please visit the website.