Review - The Inheritance is 'a courageous piece of theatre' at the Noel Coward Theatre
During one of the intervals for The Inheritance, newly transferred from the Young Vic where it premiered in March to the West End's Noel Coward Theatre, I ran into Martin Sherman, who wrote one of the great gay plays of my lifetime in Bent, a shattering account of gay life (and death) in a Nazi concentration camp. I was a 17-year-old gay man just coming to terms with my sexuality when this forever-potent play first premiered in 1979 at the Royal Court and it exposed me to a heart-breaking legacy that I'd not been aware of until then, but also showed the overwhelming power of love, even in the most dire of situations.
Sherman told me he was seeing The Inheritance for the third time - and that he considered it to be the greatest modern play ever. And even allowing for a little bit of hyperbole, he has a point, particularly for those of us who want to understand our own history - and acutely mourn an entire generation who were lost to the scourge of AIDS.
When Bent first opened, AIDS was still to come. And even if it is now a (largely) treatable disease, we are still losing major gay talents to it from the theatre: the wonderful playwright Kevin Elyot (who wrote the hauntingly beautiful My Night with Reg) died in 2014, and the Broadway composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) died just last year, aged only 41.
All of this is by way of context for the overpowering sense of loss and the vacuum created by it in our collective history that The Inheritance so powerfully articulates. By the end of the first part of this 7-hour day in the theatre (it's staged in two parts, which you can see across separate evenings or on the same day), I was a blubbery mess - as I'd been at the Young Vic, too, the first time I saw it. But in fact the emotional impact is even greater when you know what's coming.
Still, I won't spoil it for you by describing it in any way: suffice it to say that director Stephen Daldry and playwright Matthew Lopez have created a real coup d'theatre.
The key to it is its sheer, aching beauty and simplicity. Though the play may be long in length, it is matched every step of the way by its depth of feeling; and that is exhibited both in the writing and direction that penetrates deep into the souls of its characters and in turn of the audience.
By turns harrowing and healing, the cumulative effect of The Inheritance is a courageous piece of theatre in every sense: it celebrates human resilience and is a mark of it, too, for the cast and audience on a shared, highly emotional journey.
In the multi-layered cultural milieu it portrays of wealthy, talented friends living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it may feel like it is inhabiting a fairly rarefied world - one of regular visits to New York institutions like the Strand bookstore, the Film Forum, annual Christmas outings to New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker at Lincoln Centre, and so on. But if is anchored by its specificity, it also feels utterly authentic, unapologetic and playful: there's even a prominent meta-theatrical device in which another legendary gay writer EM Forster literally helps shape the narrative, as if presiding over a creative writing workshop.
Yet it totally absorbs us in that journey, as we follow two gay couples - a younger one splitting up after seven years together, the other who've been together for 36 years - who live in the same Manhattan building, and whose lives become inextricably linked.
The exemplary Young Vic cast reprise their extraordinary performances, including the tenderly wonderful Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap as the younger couple and Broadway actor John Benjamin Hickey and Paul Hilton as the older one; with Samuel H Levine making a double appearance as a young actor and the rentboy that bears an uncanny resemblance to him that precipitates both a crisis in the younger relationship - and a sense of powerful redemption and (literally) healing, too.
So many thousands of gay men weren't lucky enough to survive the AIDS crisis; but this play stands both as a memorial to them, and their own legacy to us now.
The Inheritance tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner