Written in 1905 by Harvey Granville-Barker, The Voysey Inheritance is a play that takes you by surprise. A portrait of an Edwardian family, and the legacy of financial fraud at its heart, it has an incredible freshness and relevance. And while Peter Gill’s impeccably acted revival is a rather stately affair it also brings these qualities out in abundance.
The Voysey Inheritance was last at the National in 1989 (in a production by Richard Eyre in the smaller space of the Cottesloe), when its themes – the meaning of money principally among them – would arguably have been even more resonant, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been back since.
Though Granville-Barker’s play contains much to enjoy, it’s undeniably something of a slow burner. The first scene, set in the Lincolns Inn offices of Julian Glover’s deceptively upright patriarch, makes for a rather stiff and unengaging introduction to the Voysey world. Matters aren’t helped by some very lengthy – and rather spell-breaking – scene changes punctuated by era-appropriate music.
Fortunately designer Alison Chitty’s main set – the Voysey family dining room in Chislehurst – is worth waiting for; a richly detailed creation in deep red. And the play reveals its real strengths after this change of location. It is not merely a tale of scandal – papa Voysey has been speculating on his clients’ investments, losing them money in the process – but an intricate and involving study of a family and a not so subtle dig at the Edwardian upper middle classes, elevated by a collection of excellent performances.
Dominic West, as Edward Voysey, the son burdened with the knowledge of his father’s misdeeds, toughens visibly as the play proceeds. Timid in the beginning, he makes half-hearted talk of making things right with his father’s clients and turning himself in, but he never quite has the conviction to follow through with these threats. After the death of his father, we see this initial outraged response grow into something altogether more ambiguous.
The production’s main comic thrust comes from Andrew Woodall, highly entertaining as the pompous Major Booth Voysey. And John Nettleton is equally watchable as the family friend who inadvertently threatens to bring the whole messy situation to light.
Granville-Barker’s play does not overlook the female members of the Voysey clan. Nancy Carroll makes an agreeably unfluffy fiance for Edward but she is outshone by Kirsty Bushell as the articulate, ill-suited wife of the youngest Voysey son. Doreen Mantle also makes much of the role of the family matriarch, aware of her husband’s business practices yet conveniently deaf to the whole affair.
Granville-Barker was a great all-rounder in his day, an actor and a director as well as a writer; a “great theatrical radical” according to the Lyric’s David Farr. Gill’s production draws forth some of that fire without losing anything of the play’s period spectacle. Layered and intricate and running to almost three hours, The Voysey Inheritance demands a degree of attention but the rewards are considerable.