Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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The National’s revived Granville Barker is a new, human take on old rogue trading

Voyseys from the wilderness

By Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times

30 April 2006

A lengthy drama dating from 1905, about ethical dilemmas concerning money and inheritance in a sturdily middle-class family in Chislehurst, Harley Granville Barker’s play sounds about as appetising as an ancient slice of Edwardian plum duff. Wrong. It’s a substantial and satisfying seven-course dinner, with cigars to follow, so rich in characterisation and what you could only call “moral comedy” that it makes much contemporary playwriting look cold and anaemic. The National’s production, confidently directed by Peter Gill, is sensitive to exactly what makes Granville Barker an enduring great. It is also superbly acted.

The plot concerns the outwardly respectable solicitors’ firm of Voysey and Son, Lincoln’s Inn. One day, the complacently worldly Mr Voysey (Julian Glover) reveals to his son Edward (Dominic West) that the firm has run for decades on fraud. Capital held in trust for clients or minors has been ruthlessly plundered to maintain the Voysey family’s opulent lifestyle, while those same clients, blissfully unaware, have been kept happy with continuing interest payments on their now vanished or misappropriated capital. When his father dies, Edward is left with an agonising choice: continue the fraud in perpetuity, like father, like son; or come clean, go bankrupt and plunge his family into ignominy.

It is the family and assorted friends that make this such a colourful and complicated drama, for the characters here have a novelistic richness. Nancy Carroll is superb as the elegant, beguiling Alice Maitland, as is Kirsty Bushell as the sharp-tongued boho Beatrice. There is her husband, the ludicrous Hugh Voysey (Martin Hutson), a struggling painter trying to find himself; and Doreen Mantle is a delight as old Mrs Voysey, seeing through everything and everyone, but not interested in arguing any more. John Nettleton is a fine Mr Booth, the amiable but flint-hearted old family friend whose first love will always be his 6% government bonds; and Andrew Woodall nearly steals the show as the hilarious, bellowing, bullying Major Booth Voysey, no-nonsense, bald, moustachioed and quite bottomlessly stupid, harping on about the declining “stamina of the race” and how what England needs now is “chest; chest and discipline”. A scene in which Beatrice and Hugh announce that they are separating, and Booth tries his ham-fisted hand at marriage-guidance counselling, is outstandingly funny.

At the heart of it all is Edward, played with beautiful solemnity and restraint by West. Decent, tormented, a touch priggish, he is a young man in the Shavian-Fabian mould, or, as Alice pointedly teases him: “Dear Edward, you’re a perfect little pocket guide to life.” But he is passionate as well as principled, and not so arrogant that he cannot learn to grow up and compromise, especially under the more worldly, pragmatic influence of the women.

Granville Barker’s wicked women are a delight, preferring men who are “all character and no principles”, impatient with Edward’s inhuman inflexibility, a little scandalous and, in the end, persuasively right. They live by wise little saws that stop just the right side of cynicism. “Marriage is the natural state,” says old Mrs Voysey, before adding slyly: “Once you’re married.” Beatrice analyses her hopeless husband: “Hugh’s great tragedy is that he is just clever enough to have seen through himself. And no cleverer.”

This seems a bourgeois play, then, with money, marriage and moral dilemmas at its heart: the theatrical equivalent of a novel by John Galsworthy or Arnold Bennett. Equally, it is sometimes regarded as a thoroughgoing satire on bourgeois values. (Granville Barker was a member of the Fabian Society for a time, though he later left his first wife for the wife of an American railroad millionaire.) In fact, the play is saved from being anything so programmatic as a leftist satire by just such a sense of laughable moral muddle and compromise, in a world where lofty, unbending principles and ordinary human impulses do not always go so well together. In the end, it is neither bourgeois nor anti-bourgeois — just ordinary, human and a delight.

The Voysey Inheritance, Four stars
Lyttelton, National, SE1

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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