And so, down Bride Lane, just off Fleet Street, just past The Old Bell Tavern, where we stopped for a drink in a convivial scene that would have been familiar to Samuel Johnson, who lived but paces away; then further down the narrow lane that follows the footsteps of centuries, past the soaring purity of Wren’s St Bride’s Church whose colonnaded tower became the icon of wedding cakes, and where we commemorated the life of a friend only a few months ago; crowds going to a private party of beautiful young things where we were served champagne without asking for it (we demurred) and then finally in to the Bridewell Theatre to see the Voysey Inheritance.
It is a contemporary story. The Senior Solicitor of a City firm has arranged for his younger partner and son to work through two particular files he normally keeps in his safe. The son, a dutiful and somewhat emotional young man finds that these show massive fraud on his father’s part. With some elegance the father, when confronted, explains that he inherited the fraud from his own father, quite against his will, and has worked all his life to cover it up, thus protecting the family name. He admits that he has dipped in to client’s capital himself, but explains that no-one has really been harmed, because clients only want their annual dividend, which he has always managed to provide without fail. The young and inadequate son is presented with a moral dilemma: why blow the whistle on something which has not yet hurt anyone, and which might, with his fresh management, eventually be brought back onto an even keel? This is not a case of right and wrong, but merely a case of legal and illegal.
This play rings many bells, and is a fable for our times. The Bernie Madoff scandal comes most easily to mind, but it also has the DNA of quantitative easing, in which expert opinion agrees that the full confession of national bankruptcy must be denied for the good of the public, and that a Ponzi scheme is not immoral if it is done in good faith, and solely for the protection of the common folk, who are easily dispirited and must be fed uplifting lies.
Does one mend the problem, or postpone it? Postponement may be the best option, because something may always turn up. Perhaps this is a very pure survival instinct. Never say die. The play’s theme also resonates with whistle-blowing about bad services in hospitals and care homes, when covering up may allow the institution to repair the damage and improve matters without causing widespread and unnecessary public concern. Written by Harley Granville Barker in 1905 this masterful play was an exploration of the Noble Lie, the seductive argument that some evasions have their purposes, and create their own moral benefits.
My usual opinion is: why bother to go to the London theatre at all? There is often better drama on television, and much of the usual West End fare is a disappointment, with gaudy vacuity in the popular offerings, and ponderous, creaking, pretentious scripts in the self-consciously serious new drama. Even worse, it is hard to find a parking place or a drink of any sort during the interval.
I got my answer tonight, in a small theatre where I was a few yards from the actors, the highly accomplished Tower Theatre company, with an assured John Morton as the senior Voysey, and an adept Alex Buckley as the son who inherited the moral dilemma.
It is an altogether excellent production, but for me the highlights were the changes of scene. Rather than the usual furtive interlude of black-clad stage hands there was a robing scene which was a play in its own right: the senior partner changing from his City day clothes to the white tie and tails of a formal country house dinner, paying exquisite attention to the creation of the knotted bow whilst behind him the cast changed the office into a dining room, exactly in the time it took him to change his clothes.
A grand evening, talking to friends and by chance to what turned out to be the first of six men in London with a particular surname whom I rang at random twenty years ago, searching for a long lost university friend of the same name, and thus found his number in one call. Something about these tangled City lanes invites coincidence.
Then back home, past the Black Friars in their imaginary sombre cowls, and along the swollen misty river, the ancient and now floodlit buildings looming up above the cat-like London fog.
And so to bed.