Sympathy for the Devil

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Mad props, or something, to the very intense woman seated three seats down the front row from me at Wednesday afternoon’s performance of Bruce Norris‘s Downstate, a play so relentlessly bleak that it makes Sweat look like something by Feydeau. Ms. Intensity arrived about twelve minutes before the lights went down, spent most of those twelve minutes trying to engage the attention of anyone who would listen with a breathless monologue about how dated the decor was in the living-room set onstage in front of us – “I mean, it’s like something out of the nineties” – and then sat through the first half, occasionally emitting a gasp audible three seats away, and fled as soon as the lights went up for the interval. Lesson learned: nobody goes to a group home for sex offenders for the interior decor.

Todd Rosenthal’s set, like just about everything else in Pam MacKinnon‘s extraordinary production, is studiedly, carefully, absolutely naturalistic. There’s no candy-wrapping, no sugar-coating, no sweetening the pill here: this is a grim play about unpleasant people, and it’s hard work to sit through. It’s also absolutely gripping, though you may leave thinking the playwright has stacked the decks in ways that are rather too cynically manipulative. The play takes place in the communal living-room of a group home for sex offenders somewhere in downstate Illinois (the exact location is never named, but it’s emphatically not Chicago, it’s a city large enough to have major chain stores and a bus service, and it’s located along I-55), and is primarily concerned with two confrontations, both involving residents in the home – the first concerning a meeting between an elderly (and paraplegic) sex offender and one of the children he abused, thirty years after the abuse took place, and the second a probation officer’s interrogation of a resident who has violated the terms of his release.

Norris raises a lot of valid questions about the way society treats offenders whose offences are considered beyond the pale, and he’s written a set of plausible, initially-sympathetic characters, not all of whom deserve our sympathy (the most outwardly unsympathetic characters, on first acquaintance, are grown-up abuse victim Andy’s brittle wife Em and convicted abuser Gio’s work colleague Effie, and they’re the only characters we see who are not an abuser or a victim or a police officer). There’s undoubtedly a worthwhile point to be made about how monsters don’t always look or sound like monsters, and while the technique of letting these characters charm us before confronting us with the full horrors of what they did is obvious, it’s also undeniably effective. The play, as I said, is absolutely gripping.

It is, though, also fair to say that there is something cynically mathematical about the way Norris sets up his debate in the play, as if he’s balancing an equation. It’s a little bit too perfectly symmetrical that Dee, who at first seems like he’s been cast as the play’s moral compass, turns out to be the most vehemently unrepentant about what he did (these are not spoilers, you’ll see most of the second act coming twenty minutes before it happens), or that Andy’s abuser Fred has himself, as a result of publicity surrounding his trial for abusing Andy and other children, been the victim of an act of violence that has left him permanently disabled, or that when Andy tries to make Fred read through the reconciliation contract he’s brought for Fred to sign we’re asked to question whether he remembers a significant detail about Fred’s anatomy. The play’s discussions of recidivism, of the different kinds of victimhood, about how how society treats criminals whose crimes it considers unspeakable, about whether whether forcing registered offenders to adhere to sometimes remarkably petty rules and restrictions serves to protect society from predators, are often provocative and always engaging, and the play may very well lead you to question some of your own assumptions; there are times, though, when it feels like you’re watching the playwright deliver a lecture, rather than characters interacting within a scene, and the climactic event of Act Two is telegraphed so obviously that when it happens it’s no particular surprise.

The performances, direction, and design, on the other hand, are flawless. This is a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast is a mixture of British and American actors, the acting is remarkable, and you can’t see the join. First among equals, perhaps, is Cecilia Noble as wearily pragmatic probation officer Ivy, but every beat, every line, every gesture from every single member of the company is right on target. There’s no false theatricality, no sense of anybody pushing too hard or going over the top, just an absolute commitment to finding the emotional truth in every word and every action. This is as fine an ensemble performance as you could hope to see, and there’s no faulting MacKinnon’s direction either. There aren’t many surprises in this play, in terms of the way the plot (slowly) unfolds, but MacKinnon and her cast orchestrate a carefully rising, squirm-inducing line of tension even though you’ll probably have figured out what the play’s big explosion will be half an hour before it arrives.

This kind of collaboration is precisely the sort of work the National ought to be doing – as opposed to something like Hadestown, in which an American commercial producer got to use the National’s taxpayer-funded facilities to get a price-break on a pre-Broadway tryout, and in which the British performers were all relegated to the chorus – and it’s fascinating to get to watch a production staged according to Steppenwolf’s (very recogniseable) aesthetic four thousand miles from Chicago. Yes, Downstate is hard work, and sometimes makes very uncomfortable viewing, and there are some legitimate holes you can pick in Norris’s script – but it’s unusual and very brave for a piece of theatre to confront the ground this play covers head-on, and the actors are astonishing.

And yes, the furniture and decor in that living-room set is dated and shabby. You can’t win ’em all.

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A Very Very Very Big Miss

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By the time the lights fade on the final scene of the Bridge Theatre‘s production of what one must assume is the unrevised first draft of Martin McDonagh‘s very very very uneven new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter, you’ll have long since figured out that the tagline on the poster is absolutely accurate: this is no fairytale, despite the fact that Hans Christian Andersen is the central character. We may first see Jim Broadbent’s preening, vainglorious Hans concluding a reading of The Little Mermaid, but McDonagh – as you’d expect – very quickly moves into less familiar territory. What follows is a breathless, bumpy ride through a plot that struggles to spin Andersen’s infamous five-week visit to Charles Dickens into a fable which attempts to connect a dissection of colonial atrocities in Victorian Africa with a meditation on the way fairytales spring from the darker side of our subconscious, via a recurring discussion of the dominance of the white male, both in the history of published fiction, and in history itself. There’s also a bit of time travel thrown in, and a scene with Charles Dickens’s very sweary children, and grizzled prerecorded narration by Tom Waits.

At the centre of McDonagh’s studiedly-outrageous plot is Marjory, the “Congolese pygmy woman” Andersen supposedly keeps locked up in a three-foot-high mahogany box in his Copenhagen attic, and who we’re told writes Andersen’s stories in return for sausages he pokes through a hole in the box’s front window (no, actual sausages, you have a filthy mind). Andersen takes Marjory’s characters and whitewashes them, removing any details that identify them as black, and then passes them off as his own; it’s a passable enough metaphor for the way European countries treated their colonies, although you’ll get a more nuanced discussion of the way the white cultural hegemony bleaches the black out of black culture across London at Dreamgirls at the Savoy, but here it’s buried in the middle of a narrative that seems to keep throwing things at the stage in the hope that a few of them will eventually stick. That might be OK if McDonagh managed to bring everything together into a coherent whole, but he doesn’t. The overall impression is of watching a stack of ideas circling a point but never quite landing on it.

It does manage to hold your attention, though, and there are some genuine laughs, although the play’s comedic voice is sometimes problematic. Broadbent brings just the right amount of twinkle to his nastily self-absorbed Hans, and wrings all the laughs he can out of the script. Phil Daniels’s Sweary Charles Dickens is a joy, and so is Elizabeth Berrington’s even swearier Mrs. Dickens. As Marjory, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles gives a tremendously dignified performance in a role that should be a bigger gift to an actor than it is here. Too often, McDonagh falls back on having Andersen make (frankly racist) jokes at Marjory’s expense; there’s a fine line between exposing stereotypes and simply parroting them, and McDonagh comes perilously close to finding himself on the wrong side of it. There’s a cosiness, too, to his discussion of white dominance – yes, there are still statues of King Leopold all over Belgium despite the atrocities his soldiers committed in the Congo, but that fact floats by in the middle of a stream of one-liners and comic business and other ideas, and it doesn’t land the way it was probably meant to.

Worse, there are several moments where we’re clearly supposed to laugh at some aspect of Andersen’s treatment of Marjory, and watching a tall, relatively strong, relatively well-off white man mistreat a short, physically-handicapped black woman (Marjory has only one foot, Andersen having apparently – we’re told – amputated the other one in return for once letting her out of her box) simply isn’t funny, although that didn’t stop some people laughing. It’s OK for comedy to get dark, and to take on complicated moral territory – it’s more than OK, black comedy and gallows humour can be tremendously effective weapons when deployed effectively – but to pull it off successfully you need to make the audience start to question why they laughed, and there needs to be a reason for the laugh that extends beyond the comedy of cruelty. I don’t know whether the problem here is McDonagh’s messy script or Matthew Dunster’s  production, which feels slack-paced even though the play is only about 80 minutes long, but the play’s overall tone is comfortable, in a way that sits very uneasily against the subject matter, which makes the laughs that come at Marjory’s expense wince-inducing for those among the audience who aren’t joining in.

There’s far more edge in Anna Fleischle’s fabulously macabre set design – an attic with dozens of creepy-looking puppets hanging from the rafters – than in the writing, which is never as clever or as dangerous as it thinks it is, or as it needs to be. Broadbent is always good value, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket (so are Daniels and Berrington), but the character McDonagh gives him doesn’t stretch him; in the haunted look in his eyes as the lights fade at the end of the final scene there’s a glimpse of the much more interesting play this could have been if McDonagh hadn’t (uncharacteristically) consistently privileged easy laughs over intellectual depth. There’s enough in the performances, and enough humour that works, that it’s difficult to have a very very very bad time watching A Very Very Very Dark Matter, but this is, unfortunately, a very very VERY bad play, and it needn’t have been. McDonagh seems to be coasting on his reputation here: somebody should have sent him back to take another pass at his script, or preferably about twenty other passes at his script, but I suppose it’s difficult to make someone whose awards and nominations have their own Wikipedia page go back and revise substandard work if they aren’t inclined to do it off their own bat. The result, unfortunately, is a play that never once hits hard enough: watching it is rather like being promised Tramadol and then getting an aspirin.

The Deep End

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It’s brief – under forty minutes – so this will be too. As Alex, the speaker in Simon Stephens‘s monologue Sea Wall, Andrew Scott is quite extraordinary. Stephens’s monologue tells a story about Alex’s relationship with his father-in-law, and moves quite quickly from a charming family portrait to a harrowing exploration of grief; it’s written as an intimate confessional and performed on a bare stage with the house lights up (there is only one lighting cue, and it comes at the very end of the piece), and under George Perrin’s direction Scott somehow manages to make you feel he’s telling his story directly to you, even when (as I was) you’re sitting in the back row of the dress circle. It’s a charming, devastating, profoundly moving performance, and a thrilling masterclass in how to grab the audience’s attention and hold on to it without raising your voice or moving more than a few paces. By now you’ve probably read a dozen pieces praising Scott’s performance to the skies, and he deserves all the acclaim and more.

The piece itself, on the other hand, is effective, but it isn’t as good as the performer delivering it here. Stephens has some excellent lines, and he does a very good job of sketching the dynamics between the various members of Alex’s family in the first few minutes of the monologue, but there’s a point where the writing starts to become predictable; when tragedy looms, you can see it coming a full fifteen minutes away, and that’s an issue in a piece that’s under forty minutes long. Stephens does, though, make one genuinely brilliant writing choice, and paradoxically it’s silence. There is a moment where he could have chosen to make Alex say any number of things, all of which would have been plausible, and chooses instead to leave us to fill in the blanks, and that (long) pause is the most powerful moment in the production.

In the end, though, what you remember is Scott standing in the middle of a bare stage, wearing nondescript clothes, playing the audience like a violin and doing it without breaking a sweat. It’s a short piece, but it’s a remarkable feat of storytelling – even if, as I said, you’ve figured out where the story is going a long time before it gets there.

 

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I Love Lucy

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I am a world-class nit-picker, so you may want to sit down for this: as performed – gloriously – by the extraordinary Laura Linney, Rona Munro‘s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout‘s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect theatrical experience. This is one of those incredibly rare productions where everything works. The only thing wrong with it is that the run is only three weeks so I won’t get to see it again.

Strout’s novel – and Munro’s stage script – presents a woman looking back, first at an experience in the 1980s when she became ill following a supposedly routine operation and was hospitalised for several weeks, during which time she was visited by her estranged mother, and second at her childhood, and at the causes of her estrangement from her family. From these recollections, she pieces together the process by which she acquired the ruthlessness necessary to forge a successful career as a writer. That’s a simplistic summary, because Munro’s monologue is difficult to reduce to a two-line synopsis; it’s a ninety-minute tiptoe through an emotional minefield, and if there can be such a thing as a low-key tour-de-force, this is it.

Lucy’s story, at times, is certainly harrowing. Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, in the kind of acute poverty that made other children mock her and her siblings for smelling bad, with a war-veteran father suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and a harshly undemonstrative mother, Lucy’s stories of her early childhood recall Dickens without the warmth. The tone is carefully matter-of-fact, without fireworks or histrionics, because this isn’t an I-survived-abuse confessional. Strout (via Munro) offers, instead, a careful meditation on whether it’s ever possible to escape your upbringing, and on the ways in which we sift through our memories in search of a story to tell. There’s more going on, of course – Lucy’s lengthy hospitalisation occurs in the early 1980s, the spectre of AIDS is hovering over Manhattan (there are some fascinating echoes, here and there, of The Inheritance, another play in which the ways we organise our lives and memories into narratives is a significant theme); Munro’s great achievement is to take Strout’s more-complex-than-they-seem characters and ideas and distil them, with remarkable clarity, into ninety minutes of stage time.

Laura Linney matches the writing with an impeccably-judged, quietly astonishing performance which, again, counts as a low-key tour-de-force. There are no big explosions, no bite-marks in the scenery – just a masterclass in how to tell a story simply and clearly, making every word, every breath, every pause, every gesture count. Linney slips between Lucy, who has acquired the manners and voice of a Big Ten-educated New Yorker, and her mother’s spikily flat Midwestern drawl with forensic precision, and finds all the (considerable) humour in her mother’s tales of People Back Home Who Met a Bad End. More than that, Linney navigates Strout’s complicated emotional territory without grandstanding, and without ever succumbing to oh-pity-me melodramatics; she holds back the tears instead of turning on the waterworks, and navigates a clear course through the three levels of Strout’s timeline. Linney’s presence – for want of a better word – is extraordinary: this is simultaneously a blazing star turn and an intimate character study, and there are very few actors who could navigate that contradictory duality as confidently as she does, particularly in a 900-seat theatre.

It’s beautifully directed, too, by Richard Eyre, on a simple, stark set – three projection screens, one behind the other, at the back of the stage, plus a hospital bed, a nightstand, and a chair – by Bob Crowley. Video projections, which take us from a Manhattan hospital room with a view of the Chrysler Building to an Illinois cornfield and back – are by Luke Hills, and the lighting and sound are by, respectively, Peter Mumford and John Leonard. They appear to be working in perfect unison – as in Linney’s performance, there are no flamboyant flourishes here, just a carefully-modulated exploration of every nuance of Strout and Munro’s text.

It’s safe to assume that it’ll have a life beyond the Bridge, although nothing has yet been announced. Behind that unassuming title there’s a quietly shattering piece of theatre, and Linney’s performance is utterly mesmerising. It’s a given that it’ll be seen in New York, and it’s to be hoped that it will be filmed – it would be perfect as a standalone special for Netflix or HBO – and if I lived any closer to London I’d be back before the end of the run. Don’t be put off by the cosily middlebrow poster art; there are no caveats, no buts, no holes to pick, and it’s (at least) is as good as anything you’ll see this year. Linney’s performance may be as good as anything you’ll see this decade.

 

(Re)fried Rice

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I saw it the first time around too, but I didn’t want to miss it again. Emma Rice‘s adaptation of Brief Encounter – or rather, or Brief Encounter and Still Life, the short play Brief Encounter is based on – may be (a lot) more Emma Rice than Noël Coward, but it’s (still) a thrilling, sometimes breathtaking, thoroughly memorable theatrical experience, and there (still) isn’t anything else quite like it in the West End.

It (still) isn’t precisely a straightforward adaptation of the film, though the film’s plot points are all present and correct (surely for THIS of all things you don’t need a synopsis, do you?). Rice’s calling-card is a larger-than-life theatricality that is less concerned with simply telling a story than in evoking what the characters in her productions are feeling. Rice doesn’t simply stage the screenplay, and she also doesn’t attempt a precise recreation of the film’s look and feel. Instead, she uses a combination of dialogue, song, stylised movement, and projected film to evoke the intensity of Laura and Alec’s feelings as they fall in love, and as they are forced to part. The action spills off the stage into the stalls, characters walk through a screen into and out of scenes being shown on projected film, at one point Alec swings from a chandelier, and a selection of Coward’s songs are performed in counterpoint as a kind of live underscoring. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly triumphantly.

Whether it’s as startling now as it was ten years ago, though, is another question. If, like me, this was your introduction to Rice’s distinctive directorial aesthetic, you may well, in 2007, have never seen anything quite like it. It’s not that the production doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing – it’s still thoroughly entertaining – but inevitably on a second viewing the element of surprise is somewhat diminished. It’s still an utterly charming, delightful evening (well, matinée in this case), but it didn’t blow me away this time the way it did the first time I saw it.

That’s no reflection on the performers; there’s perfectly-judged work from Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the thwarted lovers, and behind them a terrific ensemble cast, some of whom also play musical instruments, switch roles and personas at the drop of a hat. It’s (still) sometimes surprisingly funny, although without ever diminishing the emotional core of the piece, and in particular this time around Rice and her cast find tremendous humour and warmth in the relationships between the various people working in the station tea room. The singing, right across the cast, is wonderful, with Jos Slovick’s Go Slow, Johnny a particular highlight.

What’s less wonderful this time around are the ticket prices, which top out at £65, which is more than double the show’s £29.50 top price at the same venue ten years ago (in terms of inflation, £29.50 in 2008 would be worth a few pence under £39 today). It’s no secret that ticket prices across the West End have been on a sharply upward trajectory over the past few years; wonderful as the show is, £65 is a lot of money, and while London has always been a very expensive city it stretches credulity beyond breaking-point to suggest the cost of producing theatre there has risen so much faster than inflation over the past decade when wages, to say the least, have not. What’s going on here is a crude form of dynamic pricing: I sat in a seat that is on sale for next week’s Wednesday matinée for £65, and I paid significantly less than that (I paid less, though not much less, than the 2008 top price of £29.50). Discounts are available if you shop around – but only if you shop around, and not for every performance. The top price, presumably, is set where it is in order to allow more room for the possibility of discounts. This show is well worth seeing, particularly if you missed it first time around – but do your homework before you book, because the best price isn’t necessarily going to come from the theatre box office. Go and see it, by all means – it’s (still) wonderful – but purchase carefully.

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Fingers on the buzzers, please!

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Remember the coughing Major, Charles Ingram, who was tried for and convicted of cheating on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by getting signals from plants in the studio audience via the sound of their coughs? You do? I don’t. I was living abroad at the time, and the whole thing passed me by. Whether it’s a good thing to come to Quiz, James Graham‘s new manipulative theatrical stunt play, with no preconceived notions about the central character, is questionable; the show is clearly very carefully designed to take the audience’s preconceptions and toy with them, and it may be a more compelling experience if you actually have some preconceptions going in. If you know next to nothing about the case and you’re hoping for more depth than you’d find in, say, a Wikipedia article, revise your expectations downwards. Sharply downwards.

Having said that, it’s fun. Graham’s conceit is to take the prosecution and defence cases and present them, one per act, in the style of a high-stakes gameshow, allowing the audience to vote (via digital remote controls attached to each seat) at the end of each act on whether the Ingrams – his wife was also implicated, which I might have known if I’d paid any attention to news stories about the trial, but which had also passed me by – are guilty. Graham’s writing is fast-paced, often very funny, and glib; the form dictates the content here, so information is delivered mostly in carefully-packaged bite-size chunks that slot in neatly between Keir Charles’s Teflon-smooth impersonations of a cheesy TV warm-up comedian and various gameshow hosts. The production, which is designed to the hilt by Robert Jones to look as if it’s taking place on the set of a gameshow in a TV studio, is a tremendously entertaining theatrical experience, but there’s a more probing play to be written about the people at the heart of this scandal – the Ingrams, yes, but also the behaviour of the TV executives and lawyers behind the show, which appears to have been far from beyond reproach, particularly in terms of how they presented their evidence against the Ingrams and their alleged co-conspirators – and this is not it. This, instead, is a clever exercise in manipulation: we see the prosecution case in the first act, and are invited to vote on the Ingrams’ guilt after the summation, and the result is inevitable – and then in the second half, we see the defence case, are invited to vote again, and the result is clearly expected to be somewhat different (it wasn’t as different at the performance I saw – the matinee on April 12th – as it apparently usually is at most performances). There are points to be made about the perils of trial by public opinion and – in particular – the vast, yawning chasm between whether someone actually committed a crime versus whether the prosecution proved the case against them beyond reasonable doubt, and Graham mostly glosses over them – but again, to give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Graham’s point of view, if it extends beyond simply showing how people can be manipulated, comes across more clearly if you know more about the case going in than I did, which wouldn’t be difficult.

The play, then, might not be a masterpiece, but Daniel Evans‘s production of it, which has now transferred to the West End after a successful run last year at Chichester, is pretty much perfect. It is difficult to imagine the play working at all without all the bells and whistles – the devices allowing the audience to vote (a show of hands wouldn’t generate the same tension, because you would be able to see the result all around you as you voted), the video screens, the garish Saturday-night-on-ITV light show, the music and all the rest of it, and Evans manages the difficult trick of orchestrating all of these very, very LOUD elements in a way that doesn’t overshadow the cast. More than that, he draws a very fine, very dignified performance from Gavin Spokes as Ingram, and a carefully calculated did-she-didn’t-she turn from Stephanie Street as Diana Ingram, the Major’s possibly-duplicitous wife. The supporting roles are more caricatures than characters, but the show has a terrific ensemble cast and everyone gets a couple of moments in the sun. There’s some mild audience participation – if you want to avoid being called out, DON’T sit in the front row of the onstage seating areas – but it’s all slick, carefully-managed, good-natured fun, which is also a good-enough description of the show as a whole. It isn’t earth-shattering, and you may emerge longing for an analysis of this story that has a bit more depth to it, but you’ll have a good time.

Oh yes, one more thing – a big shout-out to the usher covering the house-right door into the Royal Circle at the matinee on April 12th. It was just fabulous for those of us sitting near the door to hear you talking into your headset all the way through both acts. I’m sure James Graham designed his play very carefully so that it would be enhanced by the sound of a boorish usher holding a non-work conversation with colleagues over her headset while sitting at the back of the house while the lights were down. It really added to the experience. Well done to the house manager at the Noel Coward Theatre – you’ve clearly trained your staff beautifully.

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Only Connect

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One may as well begin with the reviews – or rather, with the drool-covered mash-notes several London critics have written to Matthew Lopez, the American playwright whose two-part adaptation of a very English novel appears to be turning into The Theatrical Event of the Year. In the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish tells us it’s “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Even the least effusive reviews are mostly very, very good indeed. Lopez is all but unknown in this country, and this is quite a debut: the rest of the run is sold out bar a (very) few rush tickets, the production is certain to have a life beyond this initial run at the Young Vic, and word-of-mouth is generally very strong indeed. The Inheritance deserves the avalanche of superlatives, as far as I’m concerned – it’s a dazzling, audacious, breathtakingly clever piece of writing, expertly performed by an astonishing cast under the flawless direction of Stephen Daldry – but it also demands closer scrutiny than that avalanche of superlatives might suggest. There’s no question that this is a work of unusual brilliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without faults.

For a start, I don’t know how well it works if you aren’t at least a little bit familiar with E.M. Forster‘s Howards End, and with a few biographical details about Forster’s life and literary output. I’m sure the play can stand on its own, but I’m one of those people who always does their homework and I reread the novel the week before I saw it, which means I didn’t come to it clean. In terms of plot, Lopez’s play is more an extended riff on top of Forster’s novel than a direct translation of it; Eric and Toby, his surrogates for Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are lovers rather than siblings (there is no Tibby in the play). Eric works for a liberal/progressive NGO run by a friend, Toby is a one-hit-wonder YA novelist in the process of adapting his book for the stage. Lopez, it’s fair to say, takes the characteristics of Forster’s characters and amplifies them, so that Eric is thoroughly kind and decent and Toby is equally thoroughly self-absorbed; the play opens with a raucously funny story about Toby’s ignominious exit from a party hosted by wealthy friends Walter and Henry Wilcox (it involves Meryl Streep and the inevitable consequence of far too many Martinis), quickly follows it with Eric and Toby’s engagement, and then takes off on an epic journey through the post-AIDS landscape inhabited by New York’s gay community, with pit-stops at most (though not quite all) of the major plot points in Forster’s novel. There’s a misplaced umbrella, a thwarted inheritance, a meal at an only-for-carnivores restaurant at which the host orders for his guest of honour, a marriage, a country house, a meadow, a tree with teeth in the bark, and lots and lots of debate about art and politics and privilege, and a good number (though by no means all) of the piece’s laughs come from references to Forster’s novel. At the same time, Lopez puts E.M. Forster onstage as a character – “Morgan” – and keeps him front and centre in part one as a kind of writing coach, prompting the young men in Eric and Toby’s group of friends to revise their individual narratives and clarify the meaning behind their stories.

Despite the running time – the two parts together clock in at over six hours of stage time, over seven and a half hours including intermissions – the pace rarely flags, and you’ll need to work to keep up, because this is a piece that operates on several levels. It’s a gay Howards End AND an ongoing left-vs.-right political debate, a treatise on the tragic losses sustained by the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, a moving eulogy for those lost, a lecture about the history of AIDS, a metatheatrical examination of the ways in which we construct our lives into narratives, a play about what each generation gives to and takes from the next, a meditation on the intersection(s) between love and politics and sex, and a comedy of (sometimes very bad) manners. Usually it’s several of those things in the same scene. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride, superbly sustained through the full length of the piece, and it’s well worth the effort, but there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, and the sheer breadth (and, let’s face it, length) of the piece, the constant shifts in focus between complex, intertwined plot strands mean The Inheritance is inevitably a somewhat dizzying theatrical experience. For some, I suspect, it will gain an extra dimension if you see both parts back-to-back on the same day (which is what I did); others, certainly, will be glad of an extended break between the two halves.

And the writing, certainly, is not unimpeachable, although that shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Lopez’s achievement here is anything less than remarkable. The biggest fault, probably, is also a fault of the source novel: Lopez’s characters, like Forster’s, exist in an insular, seemingly self-contained (and self-absorbed) world in which interlopers are not always treated kindly. This is an (almost) entirely affluent, privileged (notwithstanding the profound sense of loss underpinning the play), white strata of society. There are two actors from visible minorities – out of a cast of fourteen – on the stage in a play set in Manhattan whose first scene takes place somewhere around mid-2015, and we don’t encounter a woman until midway through the final act of part two. This is a play inhabited very nearly exclusively by  a clique of gay men who all have similar backgrounds, and who (almost) all trade in the same cultural and political references. Lopez’s writing is undeniably virtuosic, and he’s created an engaging, funny, sometimes very deeply moving collection of characters, but this is still, for better or worse, a play about people who mostly only ever talk to people like themselves. Over more than six hours of stage time, given the scope of the social history Lopez is trying to navigate, that is an issue. AIDS was never simply an upper-middle-class disease, and New York’s gay community always encompassed every point on the social spectrum – but here, the two black actors in the cast play relatively minor roles, and the one character who isn’t middle-class or wealthier is a more-or-less homeless prostitute.

It’s also fair to point out that Lopez, all the way through, relies on third-person narration in the manner of a third-person novel’s omniscient voice, with characters stepping outside of scenes to tell us the story. It’s not as if this has never been done before, and it’s not as if you can’t build a successful piece of theatre around this technique (step forward, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but this is a very, very long two-part play. It contains a lot of plot, and a surprising amount of that plot is narrated rather than dramatised, told rather than shown. That isn’t going to be a problem for everyone – but if you don’t like that technique, or even if you’re ambivalent about it, sitting through six hours of it might prove to be a slog.

It’s bold of Lopez to stop the action in its tracks, more than once, to allow characters to let rip with a full-blown political debate, and it’s also bold of him to make the most unpleasantly self-righteous character in the biggest, most significant debate scene an angry, passionate left/liberal/progressive-leaning Clinton supporter, and to strenuously avoid making his billionaire Republican opponent – yes, Henry Wilcox, the only character in The Inheritance to take their name directly from his analogue character in Forster’s novel – into either a stereotypical Log Cabin Republican or a Mitt Romney clone. There’s a plot-related reason why Jason – the liberal character – is so rude in his reaction to the revelation that Henry Wilcox has donated to the (then-current) Republican Presidential candidate, but the debate – as a debate – would be less predictable if Jason attempted to refute Henry’s arguments rather than simply condemning them out of hand. It’s a fine, fiery scene, and it plays like gangbusters in the hands of Michael Marcus and John Benjamin Hickey, but Lopez’s handling of the politics behind the characters is noticeably less smart here than it is through most of the rest of the play.

And then there’s the E.M. Forster conundrum. Lopez’s play is tied very closely to its source material, even though it sometimes departs from it very significantly, and there’s an immensely touching essay in the programme in which Lopez talks about his love of a novel set in a world that is quite sharply different from the small Florida Panhandle town where he grew up. Putting Forster himself onstage proves to be a triumph; it therefore seems not only churlish but actually disrespectful to allow, in one of the play’s debates, Lopez’s young, comfortably middle-class, privileged characters, (almost) all of whom exist in the kind of monied/western/bourgeois-bohemian/liberal bubble in which LGBTQ rights have largely been embraced by the mainstream, to turn on Morgan for not publishing Maurice during his lifetime. Or rather, the accusation is perhaps fair enough, and so is the thinking behind it – it’s not impossible that the publication of an unabashedly homosexual love story from as major a figure as Forster might have helped pave the way for wider, earlier acceptance of LGBTQ rights by the public at large – but it seems churlish and disrespectful for Lopez not to permit Morgan to defend his decision. It also arguably is an indication of the potential pitfalls of an American writer putting words into the mouth of a real English literary figure, because I doubt a British writer would have failed to make the point that to publish the novel in 1914 with the ending Forster intended would quite possibly have put Forster in prison. At that time, it would have been publishable in Britain only if it had ended in the imprisonment or suicide of one or other (or both) of the two central characters; for a mainstream fiction press to publish a homosexual love story with a happy ending would have been more or less unthinkable, and for Forster to pursue publication of the novel would have required reserves of strength and bravery and self-sacrifice that, frankly, are not evident among most of Lopez’s characters in The Inheritance. It’s probably the least sure-footed passage in the whole of the play.

The ending of part two, as well, could stand a little sharpening. Partly that’s because the ending of part one – an equivalent of the scene in the novel where Margaret first sees the meadow at Howards End – is so beautifully written and so exquisitely moving that it’s very difficult for the ending of part two not to suffer at least a little in comparison, but partly it’s because we’ve all seen the final episode of Six Feet Under and some of us have seen (or at least read) Terrence McNally‘s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the specific narrative gimmick Lopez pulls out in his final sequence has been done before, and done better.

Questions of milieu and the (nearly) all-male cast (I mean, really – do none of these people ever speak to a woman?) aside, though, those few hiccups amount to no more than a couple of scenes out of a mostly splendid piece of writing… although having said that, there is very little in theatre (and film) that isn’t improved by editing, and that’s certainly the case here. I don’t mean a hacksaw, but each of the play’s six acts could comfortably stand to lose a few minutes (by the time I saw it last week, part two had already lost ten minutes or so of running time from the timings reported while it was in previews), and in the second part the audience really needs more than a five-minute breather between the second and third acts.

Not that your attention will wander, because while the writing is not entirely unimpeachable, Stephen Daldry’s production is just about perfect. Elegantly staged on Bob Crowley’s rectangular white platform set – a blank page, if you like – against a black backdrop which occasionally parts to reveal another room, or a tree, or a model of the upstate house at the centre of the plot, Daldry’s staging is strikingly minimalist and, as lit by Jon Clark, often quite beautiful. He’s done, too, a superb job of rendering Lopez’s complicated, sprawling, multilayered plot with absolute clarity. More than anything else, he’s drawn wonderful performances from his cast. Kyle Soller’s Eric is an astonishing six-hour tour-de-force – Eric is our way in to the play, the most wholly sympathetic character onstage, and Soller’s work is simply stunning. Without grandstanding, and without ever chewing the scenery (not that there’s much scenery to chew), Soller provides a quietly moving portrayal of a genuinely good, kind man who slowly comes to understand that he must use his privilege to help others. Andrew Burnap is equally good as the self-absorbed/charmingly obnoxious writer Toby, and when we’re (finally) shown Toby’s inner demons (after being told about them for five whole acts) Burnap doesn’t overplay the moment. Samuel H. Levine is mesmerising as the play’s stand-ins for Leonard and Jacky Bast – Adam, an overprivileged, culturally-undereducated would-be actor, and Leo, a rent boy who (we are told) looks remarkably similar to Adam. Paul Hilton is simply lovely as Morgan, and as Walter, the play’s equivalent of Ruth Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Republican who finds himself becoming closer to Eric after Walter’s death, is a far more compelling figure than the Henry Wilcox in Forster’s novel; Hickey is very moving indeed as a character whose losses during the early years of the AIDS epidemic were so profound that he’s been left emotionally crippled by what amounts to a form of PTSD, but he also makes Henry’s growing relationship with Eric absolutely believable, and he and Lopez, to their enormous credit, avoid more or less all the obvious Republican! Billionaire! clichés (which, to return to an earlier point, is why it’s startling that the writing for Jason #1, the Committed Progressive among Lopez’s cast of characters here, is so jarringly one-note). The supporting performances – all of them – are excellent; everyone apart from Hickey, Soller, Burnap, and Vanessa Redgrave plays more than one role; this is an ensemble performance, and the performances right across the ensemble are flawless.

That leaves Vanessa Redgrave, whose appearance is held back until almost halfway through the show’s final act. She’s frail and fragile and heartbreaking, and very quiet as a kind of Ruth Coker Burks figure – a woman who rejected her gay son while he was healthy, and then devoted her life to providing palliative care for AIDS patients as a kind of penance after his death. Given her connection to the Merchant-Ivory film of the source novel, Redgrave’s appearance more or less amounts to stunt-casting, but she has remarkable presence; you may occasionally wonder whether the character is overcome with grief or the actress is struggling to remember the next line, but she supplies a great deal of the final act’s emotional force. Lopez gives her character what amounts to an extended monologue about the sickness and death of her son, and in Redgrave’s hands it becomes a masterclass in the value of stillness onstage. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a late highlight in a phenomenal piece of theatre.

So, yes, those reviews – where we began – were absolutely justified…but. The thing about reviews like that is that they create impossible expectations, and also, sometimes, a sense that the work is somehow above criticism by regular mortals. To be absolutely clear, The Inheritance is a staggeringly talented piece of writing. This is an extraordinary, dazzling, wonderful play given a flawless production. Several reviews have compared it directly to Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America; it withstands the comparison, and that is very, very high praise indeed. It is going to have a life, probably a very significant life, beyond this production (although sorry, Dominic Cavendish, it is simply too soon to say whether it’s the most significant new American play of the century so far). Kyle Soller deserves every award out there for his performance, and Lopez deserves every award out there for a script whose highs are spectacularly high. Of course it’s a must-see, and probably a must-read too – but while you’ll be thrilled, moved, and thoroughly dazzled by The Inheritance, you’ll also find yourself picking holes in it for days afterwards.