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 30 years, first to repair his own father's malfeasance, then because he liked it. As Edward (Dominic West) prepares to take over the firm of solicitors from his father - who then drops dead - he must choose whether to face the music or to keep robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Peter Gill's splendidly crisp and wonderfully cast production gets tremendous fun out of the various Voyseys and their responses to the news that "pater" kept them all happy through embezzlement. Andrew Woodall, as Edward's brother Booth, is a hilarious model of empty pomposity, no sooner hearing the unpleasant truth than rewriting it. Mother (Doreen Mantle), cosily upholstered and conveniently deaf, says that she knew about the crime all along and that she'll toddle off to bed now. The only weak spot is Julian Glover as Voysey, who bellows his entire part, ignoring the juice to be squeezed out of its emotional blackmail and sexual rivalry.
Sex stays implicit in the play. Edward has asked Alice (Nancy Carroll) to marry him several times, but only when she learns the truth about his troubles does she become interested in him. The part has been improved by some cutting that makes Alice less silly, but she is still unrealistic. A more sympathetic female is Kirsty Bushell's cuttingly honest Beatrice, the wife of Edward's weak brother: "I loved him enough to marry him, but for some of us that's not much."
There is such a thing as too much fun. Some may feel that Gill is scanting the harsh and tragic aspects of the play - but where are they? Granville-Barker was good at writing scenes in which various types display their character, but thereafter they don't change - the longer they're around, the more superficial they seem. The play ends with a scene that leaves one feeling that, after the dust-up we've seen, everything will be sort of all right. Sexless, comic, ultimately reassuring - you can see why the English of his day loved Granville-Barker and also why claiming him as our Ibsen is a not very funny joke.
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