A CurtainUp London Review
Matthew Lopez grew up in the Florida panhandle, a part of the only Puerto Rican family in his town and feeling as if he were the only "gay kid in his school". At 15 he asked his mother to take him to the movie of Howards End because he wanted to see what all the fuss was about Emma Thompson's performance. Although there weren't any gay characters in Howards End nor anyone else he could obviously relate to, the movie and later the novel made such an impression on the young Lopez that he read it and re-read it. His play The Inheritance is a story with a basis in Howards End and played over two, three and a quarter hour performances, now at the Noel Coward Theatre in London's West End.
At 26 and then in New York, Lopez made the discovery of EM Forster's book Maurice published after the author's death, and realised that Forster was a gay man. So the English writer from 1910 connected with a young gay man in 1992. As Lopez himself puts it, "We shared something: a truth about ourselves and a shame about ourselves. Forster had overcome his through his writing. I had overcome mine through reading."
I saw The Inheritance not on the press day with the razzmatazz of celebrities but over two nights with a regular audience with many gay men there to see a play about themselves and their history. Onstage are a group of a dozen or so gay men, all barefoot. The year is 2015. Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) is at a party in the Hamptons and is sending voice mails to his boyfriend Eric Glass (Kyle Soller).
Although based on Howards End I found I wasted too much time in this first act trying to relate the action to the characters of Forster's novel. Better to let The Inheritance sweep over me and make the connections later rather than puzzling over them. Eric Glass holds one of his famous dinner parties for his current day friends and Adam (Samuel H Levine) comes to return a bag they have accidentally exchanged.
Onstage is Morgan, Edward Morgan Forster (Paul Hilton) the writer Eric knows well. Eric tells us about his apartment, how his family came from Dachau in 1947 and have a rent controlled apartment, first rented by his grandmother but which the landlord now wants to repossess. We enter into the gay community with a scene of balletically improvised sex between two men with Forster every so often censoring the content in an amicable way. Adam who is self effacing and apologetic falls in with Toby and Eric and Adam explains he was adopted as a baby by this rich New York family which of course chips away at the Howards End parallel with the Bast family. Toby and Eric take Adam under their wing and educate him in the culture that New York has to offer.
Eric meets Walter (Paul Hilton) and Walter tells us about how he arrived in NYC in 1969, gay and alone and how rumours of a disease had emerged. By 1987 there were funerals and hospital visits as gay men were diagnosed with HIV. Walter talks about his house "Howards End" and his friend Peter who was infected and came to Walter's house to be cared for in his last days before his death.
In the second act, we learn more about Adam: his birth to a sixteen year old mother from Arkansas and his adoption at two weeks old. Adam relates a gay experience to Toby in a Czech bathhouse with multiple men and waiting for the HIV test over the Christmas break. As Toby is convinced, Adam turns and looks at the audience with an enigmatic smile. They talk about politics and what if the unthinkable happens and Clinton doesn't win? Eric's apartment is to be repossessed and he and Toby seriously spat and split. Walter, who is dying, leaves a note asking that Eric should inherit his house but Walter's long term partner Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) and Henry's sons Charles (Robert Boulter) and Young Henry (Hubert Burton) burn Walter's letter.
In the third act, Toby's play is to be produced and Adam beats the other actors to the part. Adam tells Toby he is dating the show's director. Toby, without both Eric and Adam, phones a rent boy Leo (Samuel H Levine) who bears an amazing resemblance to Adam but has none of Adam's acquired confidence.
By the end of Part One of The Inheritance Eric and Henry are men we care about. Toby is harder to like and it is Toby that accosts Morgan with accusations of hiding his homosexuality, especially when he learns that EM Forster lived until 1970. Forster replies, "You cannot understand how it is to live in freedom. The past must be faced."
This Part closes with the most powerful and emotional procession to the house at Howards End of the boys who lost their lives in the AIDs epidemic, maybe 50 walking onstage representing the thousands that died. The loss is felt as strongly as those we remember in those stage enactments of those dying in the First World War, all that talent and artistry and composition and writing and art lost from a generation.
The Inheritance Part Two, opens with Eric and Henry spending time together. Henry Wilcox is a capitalist, a rich businessman but he wants the companionship of Eric and proposes marriage but not a sexual relationship. We flash back to Henry meeting Walter for the first time in 1969. Eric's friends gather and are amusing as they banter with each other but they are very negative about Eric having accepted Henry's proposal of marriage. There is a vigorous debate about politics between Eric's former boss a Democratic and gay activist Jasper (Hugo Bolton) and Republican Henry as they argue who did the most to develop the drugs to contain HIV. When Henry says, "There are no gay men my age …at least not nearly enough," I felt hairs stand up on my arms my neck, such was the emotional impact of his words.
There are lighter moments too. As Leo tries to explain that he still has Toby's card, he starts to say, "That night you gave me . . . " and Toby interrupts "It wasn't me that gave you anything, I get tested regularily." Toby and Leo throw themselves into the party scene at beach parties on Fire Island, sex, drugs and Leo relates a parallel gang bang to that earlier described by Adam. Eric and Henry's wedding is gatecrashed by Toby and Leo, and Leo and Henry recognise each other. Howards End readers will know the significance of this encounter.
Finally in Part Two, we hear Toby's backstory, the reason for all his damage, being bullied aged 8 and called a smelly faggot. Eric returns to Howards End to find that all his grandparents furniture has been placed in the house by Margaret (Vanessa Redgrave), the mother of one of the boys who died there. She explains how she rejected her own son for his homosexuality and how she tries to make amends.
The ensemble performances are strong across the board but I must single out Kyle Soller and Paul Hilton for their roles. Eric is a very attractive personality always giving time to others and Paul Hilton brings out the isolation and loneliness of EM Forster as well as the humanity of Walter. Samuel H Levine has to differentiate between Adam and Leo with little other than body language and posture and is very successful. Stephen Daldry has done an excellent job of keeping our attention at approaching seven hours of theatre with a convincing and sympathetic narrative that will stay with me.
Search CurtainUp in the box below
Written by Matthew Lopez
Inspired by EM Forster's Howards End
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring: Andrew Burnap, Hugo Bolton, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H Levine, Vanessa Redgrave, Kyle Soller
With: Robert Boulter, Hubert Burton, Syrus Lowe, Michael Marcus, Jack Riddiford, Michael Walters, Joshua de la Warr, Sam Lockhart
Design: Bob Crowley
Sound Design: Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid
Composer: Paul Englishby
Lighting Design: Jon Clark
Running time: Part One Three hours 15 minutes with two intervals, Part Two Three hours 15 minutes with one interval and a pause
Box Office: 0344 482 5138
Booking to 19th January 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th and 12th October 2018 performances at the Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 St Martin's Lane WC2N 4AP (Tube: Leicester Square)
Index of reviewed shows still running
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):
Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.
For a feed to reviews and features as they are posted at http://curtainupnewlinks.blogspot.com to your reader
Curtainup at Facebook . . . Curtainup at Twitter