THEATRE / Bricks and morality: Paul Taylor reviews Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance at the Royal Lyceum

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As familial bequests go, the syphilis passed on to Oswald Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts is plain sailing compared to the complex web of financial chicanery handed down to Edward Voysey in Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance. A play in which a son discovers that his father has been speculating, for private gain, with clients' trust funds has, of course, acquired a robust topicality thanks to the machinations of the late Cap'n Bob. The programme for William Gaskill's production - which launches the Barker retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival - can't bring itself to name Maxwell, but alludes to a 'notorious parallel case' and makes the point that the situation in the play actually has a sharper, more particular irony because the fraudster there is a highly respected lawyer.

A devastating assault on Edwardian values, The Voysey Inheritance is mined throughout with unsettling ironies of this kind. The play is one of the great plush Trojan horses of English drama; it has all the outward trappings of a well-upholstered, mahogany-filled Edwardian family saga, but the conventional appearances are deceptive; the questions it manages to infiltrate into the theatre are most unconventional and amount to a comprehensive and radical critique of capitalist society. 'When one thinks how the money was obtained]' groans the righteous Edward. 'When one thinks how most money is obtained]' is the level-headed reply of his future wife. By the end of five adroit, gripping acts - which show, for example, the rich pillars of the Christian community keen to muscle in ahead of the needy in the queue for financial reparation - the distinction between swindler-villain and swindled victims has lost its erstwhile simplicity.

The play's bracing power comes across only fitfully in Gaskill's respectable but uninspired revival. The weakest link in it is Tenniel Evans who, although he contrives to bring out the oddly Wildean criminal-as-artist strain in old Voysey's makeup, has none of the magnetic, buccaneering quality needed for this self-professed Inns of Court pirate. It's important that the character make a vivid impact in the first two acts, so that after his death, the Voysey world can seem, in some way, shrunken and diminished. But Evans is such an anaemic presence, there's no great haemorrhage of colour once he has gone.

Peter Lindford copes well with the difficult role of Edward. All plastered down and pallid, he looks as though he was probably born fully dressed for the office. At the start, the way he responds to the news of his father's fraud bears an unfortunate resemblance to someone languishing in the grip of a particularly intense bout of constipation. But, as the play proceeds, Lindford traces, with delicacy and intelligence, the hero's progress from priggish boy to a man who has the courage to grapple unsqueamishly with the mess he has been left and, in order to make good all the losses he can, continue to fiddle the accounts. Therein lies one of the play's paradoxes: what Edward does is illegal but honourable.

Hayden Griffin's sets are appropriately handsome - with its mahogany pillars, the Voysey dining-room at Chislehurst looks a middle-class temple to Manon - but the production has, as yet, a slightly hollow, unlived-in feel that prevents the great ensemble scenes from really taking off, as they did in Richard Eyres' 1989 Cottesloe production. What you get here are some attractive individual performances: booming out his fatuous certainties, Peter Blythe is very amusing as the bone-headed, blimpish brother and Gillian Martell as the deaf Mrs Voysey, is even funnier, giving the character a faintly barmy serenity, not at all put out, it seems, at being cut off. And what you get, too, in an albeit muffled form, is one of the most intelligent plays in the language.

The Voysey Inheritance continues until 22 August at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh (Box office: 031-225 5756).

(Photograph omitted)