First Night: The Voysey Inheritance, Lyttleton Theatre, London

Family's nasty business still provides fun a century later
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The Independent Culture

The inheritance that Mr Voysey passes to his son and partner, Edward, is worse than a poisoned chalice - it's an empty one. In Harley Granville-Barker's play of 1905, which rings uncomfortably true today, the elder Voysey has been defrauding his clients for more than 30 years, first to repair his own father's malfeasance, then because he liked it.

As Edward (an appealing Dominic West) prepares to take over the firm from his father - who then, in his last act of good timing, drops dead - he must choose whether to face the music or to keep robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Peter Gill's splendidly crisp and well-cast production - far livelier than the 1989 Richard Eyre production in the Cottesloe - gets tremendous fun, both subtle and broad, out of the various Voyseys and their responses to the news that "pater" kept them all happy through embezzlement.

Andrew Woodall, as Edward's older brother Booth, is a hilarious model of empty pomposity, no sooner hearing the truth than rewriting it, and ordering everyone to live up to his copybook notions of propriety.

Mother (Doreen Mantle), cosily upholstered and conveniently deaf, says calmly that she knew about it all along and that she'll toddle off to bed now. Voysey's elderly best friend (John Nettleton) is devastated to learn that his own funds have been plundered, especially when he has led such a high-minded life: "I've not needed to take the bread out of other men's mouths by working."

The only weak spot is, unfortunately, Julian Glover as Voysey, who bellows his entire part, ignoring the juice to be squeezed out of its emotional blackmail and sexual rivalry; his confession to his son is actually a boast that, by sailing close to the wind for so long while keeping his nerve, he is more of a man than his boringly moral heir.

Sex, however, stays implicit in the play - a big reason that Granville-Barker is only a pale shadow of Ibsen. Edward has asked Alice (bewitching Nancy Carroll) to marry him several times, but only when she learns the truth about the firm does she become interested in him. One year later, she suddenly announces that she loves him and falls into his arms. The part has been improved by some judicious cutting that makes Alice less of a selfish prig, but is still bloodless and unrealistic.

The play as a whole is too long and leisurely, and the last scene undramatic.

Kirsty Bushell, however, makes the most of the astringent part of Beatrice, Edward's sister-in-law, who looks at the facts of marriage as squarely as the Voyseys avoid those of finance. "I loved him enough to marry him," she says of her husband, "but for some of us that's not much," while reminding the exquisite Alice that she owes her idealism to her £800 a year: "Fine feelings, my dear, are as much a luxury as clean gloves."