An epic gay play for the 21st century – Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a must-see at the Young Vic
“A chain of gay men helping each other, loving each other, hurting each other, understanding each other”
It would be easy to focus on the fact that The Inheritance is long and yes, its two parts total up to nearly seven hours in the thankfully comfortable seats of the Young Vic. But they also sum up to a brave and epic piece of new writing from Matthew Lopez, taking a scalpel to contemporary gay life in New York, asking what does it mean to be a gay man today and just how much of that is owed to an inherited (and neglected) cultural legacy.
Structurally, the play owes a curious debt to EM Forster’s Howard’s End, using it as a considerable inspiration for plot but also as a device to launch into its storytelling, which has an occasional tricksiness to it, pulling at the thread of the stories we wish we could tell rather than the ones we have to. That main story centres on Eric and Toby, a gay couple who have the foundations of their relationship rocked when the tenancy of their amazing apartment is terminated. As their lives reshape around new realities, new experiences, new challenges, they come to see how little of the world they really know.
Stephen Daldry’s direction indulges much of the girth of Lopez’s writing, giving scenes the rare elegance of real space to unfold, but also ensures a sense of pace which stops it from feeling interminable. So debates about surviving AIDS, or who does the most socially worthy ‘good’ work, or what it means to be a gay Republican are allowed to unwind intelligently without having to land too heavily on one side or the other. And there’s also a wittiness at play here too, as with the funniest incorporation of a Grindr beep you’ll see this year and a brilliantly staged sex scene.
Bob Crowley’s set design is a masterclass in pure simplicity, a platform that rises and falls occasionally as if sighing. And at the risk of giving too much away, its reveals are a thing of beauty, lit gracefully by Jon Clark. Performance levels are off the chart – Kyle Soller is perfect as the kindly Eric (the one you want to take home to your mum), Andrew Burnap finds pathos in Toby (the one you don’t tell your mum about), and Samuel H Levine’s Adam has one of those journeys that just make the heart soar. There’s strong work too from a forthright John Benjamin Hickey, a late-appearing Vanessa Redgrave in all her aching fragility and Paul Hilton who pretty much steals Part 1 in what feels like a career-best turn.
You could probably edit some of Part Two, and you could probably lose some of the meta-theatrical jokes. You might point at the recasting of Howard’s End to a (pretty much) all-male world but this is specifically a gay play, about gay men (and in saying that, I do acknowledge the relative privilege of that position) and a larger universality springs from that particular focus. Not all plays have to cover all bases. As it is, I adored The Inheritance in all its sprawling, shimmering ambition and in that final scene of Part One, a moment of theatre I will never forget.