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A CurtainUp London Review
The Voysey Inheritance

You must either be the master of money or its servant.----Mr Voysey

Dominic West as Edward Voysey
Dominic West as Edward Voysey
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Although Harley Granville Barker's plays are not performed very often these days, he was a significant figure in British theatre in the first half of this century whose influence can still be felt today. As a theoretician, actor, playwright, director and co-manager of the (Royal) Court Theatre, he promoted a new kind of drama, premiered several Shaw plays and revitalised the staging of Shakespeare. With William Archer, he also devised a plan for a national theatre in 1904, so it seems entirely appropriate that the Royal National Theatre should produce his best play The Voysey Inheritance in its centenary year.

The National did stage the play relatively recently, in 1989, but then it was done in the intimate Cottesloe, whereas this time it's a large-scale production in the proscenium Lyttleton in which director Peter Gill does full justice to Granville Barker's powerful condemnation of Edwardian bourgeois values. Most evidently showing the influence of Ibsen, but also at times Shaw, the play also has much in common with John Galsworthy's novel trilogy The Forsyte Saga and even the 1970s TV drama series Upstairs, Downstairs in its use of a wealthy but divided family to attack capitalism, class, fraud and hypocrisy.

When the highly successful solicitor and financial adviser Mr Voysey (Julian Glover), a pillar of the community, lets his young idealistic son and business partner Edward (Dominic West) know that he has been defrauding clients and family friends for 30 years, as his father had done before him, Edward is shocked to his core. Not only is the father he loves and has always looked up to a criminal, but the privileged lifestyle and expensive education that he and his siblings have enjoyed have been based on robbing other people.

Voysey senior wants Edward to carry on the family business in the same way but his conscience can't let him, so after his father dies suddenly he decides to straighten up the firm's affairs. The trouble is that the other members of his family are all dependent on the money they're used to receiving and also don't want the Voysey name publicly shamed, so Edward is faced with the dilemma of either making a clean breast of things or trying to pay off the debts secretly.

Alison Chitty's wonderfully detailed designs depicting the family firm's smart offices and luxurious country house are full of heavy-looking furniture and elaborate ornamentation to emphasise the Voyseys' seemingly solid and respectable upper-middle-class position in society. Unfortunately there are two enormous delays when the scenery is changed which interrupts the dramatic momentum of a play which is on the cumbersome side anyway. Edwardian music and news bulletins are cleverly used to set the historical context and fill these long gaps between the acts of a slow-burning drama which is ultimately well worth the necessary patient concentration.

The Voysey Inheritance is about both political issues and private conscience. It's clear that the Voysey family represents the establishment and that Granville Barker is keen to show how class-ridden, materialistic society encourages greed, lying and cheating. (The well-publicised cases of major financial fraud across the world in recent years prove the message is still all too relevant.) However, the play also examines a father/son relationship, sibling rivalry and gender relations.

The 20-plus cast is strong throughout. In the lead, Dominic West gives a superbly controlled performance as Edward, suggesting a certain priggishness early on which gives way to a steely determination to put things right, as we see him grow in self-assurance and moral certainty. Julian Glover cuts a disarmingly attractive figure as the Machiavellian Mr Voysey, who seems to have no moral qualms about his misdemeanours which he regards as in the family interest.

Doreen Mantle is the delightfully dotty Mrs Voysey, who hears only what she wants to hear. Andrew Woodall provides some welcome comic relief as Edward's booming older brother, Major Booth, completely unaware of his own pomposity. Martin Hutson also amuses as his youngest brother Hugh, a struggling artist with a subversive sense of humour, while Kirsty Bushell excels as his more practical authoress wife Beatrice - a very Shavian couple. As the woman Edward loves, Nancy Carroll is charming as Alice Maitland, showing how she changes her mind about him as he grows in manliness.

John Nettleton strongly conveys the shock of George Booth, one of Mr Voysey's oldest friends, when he discovers his treachery, and John Normington also impresses as Peacey, Voysey's discreet head clerk who - like his father before him - knows exactly what is going on and profits from it, as moral corruption is passed from generation to generation.

Editor's Note: Whenever one of us at CurtainUp manages to see one of the rare productions of this play, we have found it to be a rewarding theatrical outing. Here are links to reviews of The Voysey Inheritance Off Broadway and in Philadelphia.

Written by Harley Granville Barker
Directed by Peter Gill

Starring: Dominic West, Julian Glover
With: John Normington, Andrew Woodall, Joseph Thompson, John Nettleton, Roger Swaine, Isabella Calthorpe, Nancy Carroll, Lucy Briers, Kirsty Bushell, Doreen Mantle, Sarah Mowat, Mark Tandy, Martin Hutson
Designer: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Hartley T.A. Kemp
Sound: Yvonne Gilbert
Music: Terry Davies
A Royal National Theatre production
Running time: 2 hour 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
In repertory until 7th June 2006--then cast changes to 30th September
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 26th April 2006 performance at the Royal National Theatre, Lyttleton, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Underground/rail: Waterloo)
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