Family jewels

Theatre - Respectability poses problems in a smart Edwardian satire, writes Michael Portillo

<s

The Voysey Inheritance is a witty, hundred-year-old satire on middle-class hypocrisy. To the humilia-tion and shock of his son Edward, old Mr Voysey reveals that for many years he has run his solicitor's practice, in which Edward is a partner, fraudulently. The clients' capital has been systematically pilfered and the crime covered up by crediting their accounts with the correct payments of interest.

Edward faces a dilemma when he learns of the scam: whether to walk away from the firm and bankrupt the practice once his father is dead, or to keep things running in the hope that he can somehow replace the stolen money.

The Voysey family's reactions are not what you might expect. Old Voysey finds his son's scruples unmanly and scorns his threat to quit as cowardice. He tells Edward that he himself inherited his own father's fraud and has had to cope with that legacy. It is a duty to appear "opulent in one's daily life and to inspire confidence".

At his father's funeral, when Edward tells his mother and siblings what has been going on, the widow is unsurprised and the children favour avoiding a scan-dal at all costs. Most surprisingly, Alice, the woman whom Edward would have liked to marry, does not see things in the straightforward terms of good and evil that he does.

The play was written by Granville Barker, an actor and director who later became known for literary criticism, especially his Prefaces to Shakespeare. Years after writing this satire, he disappointed his radical fans by marrying money and going "double-barrelled" (he added "Harley" before his names).

He laced the script with the droll euphemisms that "respectable" people use to disguise from themselves the seriousness of their crimes: "You have to develop your own sense of right and wrong . . . deal with your own justice. But that makes a bigger man of you." For as long as the edifice of deceit can be kept upright, the perpetrators of the embezzlement can pretend that theirs is a victim-less crime - the defence of insider traders over the ages.

Characterisation is one of Barker's strong suits. Old Voysey (played by Julian Glover) is wonderfully brisk, a highly practised con artist. Edward (Dominic West) begins the play in blubbering bewilderment but develops into a hard-bitten realist. John Normington plays Peacey, the firm's working-class clerk who, though on the take, objects to having his payments described as "hush money" and would certainly not wish to take a partnership in such a dishonourable firm.

Booth is Edward's older brother, an army officer who believes in "chest, discipline and conscription", an idiotic prig whose catchphrase is "I am not a conceited man", delightfully played by Andrew Woodall. Hugh (Martin Hutson) is the youngest son - and a rebel against his middle-class family - who has discovered that he could live by painting forgeries, but who refuses so "to prostitute" his art. Doreen Mantle is the unshockable matriarch, who uses her deafness as a defence against being drawn too deeply into the family disputes.

Nancy Carroll plays the charming and sophisticated Alice, who has refused Edward's three and a half proposals of marriage but now seems to be angling for another. Ethel, the youngest daugh-ter, provides a great cameo-role opportunity for Isabella Calthorpe as she squirms on Daddy's lap cajoling out of him a cheque and other presents for her forthcoming wedding. Roger Swaine makes the most of the Reverend Evan Colpus, a wheezing vicar with mutton-chop sideburns.

None of the performances is less than very good. Glover carries the critical first scene magisterially. West assumes mastery over the play's second half. John Nettleton represents the victims of crime as George Booth, old Voysey's lifelong friend, and the interview between him and Edward is a dramatic highlight in the play.

With the family and friends gathered and attended by many servants, the stage can get crowd-ed. But the play is always dyna-mic. The characters come and go from the dining room as they seek refuge from the family catastrophe either in their beds or with a cigar outside.

Alison Chitty's superb design helps a lot with all that movement. The dining room occupies the centre of the Lyttelton Theatre's wide stage, leaving room for a conservatory on one side and a corridor with more doors on the other. The Edwardian details of heavy furniture and heavily fringed lampshades are perfect, and the costumes sumptuous.

Yet it is not all perfection: Barker formed a sub-plot around Hugh's failing marriage, and his critique of the middle class is rather heavy and certainly overlong. However, it is still a beautiful piece of theatre and it ends with poignant moral ambiguity.

Booking on 020 7452 3000 to 7 June