7 March 2023
A quick read of J B Priestley’s opening stage directions for ‘An Inspector Calls’ offers some insight into his thinking behind the play and the decisions taken by director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil in this production which has been in existence for over 30 years. Priestley tempts directors to dispense with a realistic set and in the original 1945 production in Moscow (no suitable venue in London could be found at the time) this is what was provided, before reverting to realism when it opened at the New Theatre, London in 1946 starring Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness.
Priestley’s ‘time’ plays – of which this is one – where he tinkers with the order of the past and the present are unique and compelling and ‘An Inspector Calls’ has rightly become regarded as one of the great plays in the English language. It is packed with symbolism and subtext. Daldry’s production takes matters further. Set a few years before the First World War, the ‘dolls house’ style house is placed in a landscape dereliction found in the Second World War; indeed the titular Inspector and his onlookers are very much dressed for the 1940s. The Inspector’s closing speech to the audience is very much an appeal to those in positions of power to think before taking actions – the destruction of life caused by two major conflicts is not so much alluded to as posted on a huge billboard.
The arrogance of class and money are key factors in the play as well as the impact of actions the individual carries out – all emphasised by the house of the Birlings set above the surrounding destruction where the dispossessed children look up and the rich family look down.
So from the dramatic opening with the booming music of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to the film ‘Vertigo’ as the rain falls to the moment when the Birling family’s home comes crashing down around them – quite literally – the audience is taken on a 110 minute experience of theatre that remains powerful, pertinent and compelling. The time passes like the wind.
A school set text, this production sells out performances with ease and entrances the young and the old and offers questions to discuss, ponder and explain. It is a veritable cornucopia of messages and ideas.
Liam Brennan has performed Inspector Goole – ‘ghoul’? – many times and his no nonsense inquisition is effective and powerful. Likewise the brash Northern business man, Arthur Birling, is given the right level of arrogance by Jeffrey Harmer. Christine Kavanagh has a more mannered approach to the somewhat detestable Sybil Birling – a performance which steps over into the melodramatic occasionally and rather grates. Chloe Orrock is a highly effective Sheila – the knowing daughter who quickly realises how actions have consequences. George Rowlands is first rate as Eric, the wayward son who despises his parents lack of humanity; full of pent up emotion and rebellion. Maceo Cortezz is effective enough as the ‘stuffed shirt’ fiancé of Sheila, though his native accent does appear here and there. Pottering around throughout is Frances Campbell as the elderly maid, Edna; is her the sight of her knitting at the end a nod to the French Revolution?
The end of the play offers a sight of destruction and chaos created by man’s actions where those in charge face the charges apparently in front of a court of the poor, the ordinary, the common man.
Having seen this production a number of times – and three years ago it was the last piece of theatre I saw before the first Covid lockdown – it remains a dynamic, intriguing and engrossing experience. With imaginative use of light, sound and some splendidly atmospheric music from Stephen Warbeck, it is difficult not to see it continuing to pull people in for many years to go.
For the largely young audience who were rapt and fascinated they will find much to mine from what they witnessed.
As theatre productions go, this ticks many boxes and more. If you have yet to see it, now might be the time.
CAST & CREATIVES
INSPECTOR GOOLE – LIAM BRENNAN
SYBIL BIRLING – CHRISTINE KAVANAGH
ARTHUR BIRLING – JEFFREY HARMER
GERALD CROFT – MACEO CORTEZZ
SHEILA BIRLING – CHLOE ORROCK
ERIC BIRLING – GEORGE ROWLANDS
EDNA – FRANCES CAMPBELL
YOUNGER BOY – RORY FERRIER
GIRL – LUCEA BAIDOO
OLDER BOY – RUPERT HASTINGS
WRITER – J B PRIESTLEY
DIRECTOR – STEPHEN DALDRY
DESIGNER – IAN MACNEIL
LIGHTING DESIGN – RICK FISHER
MUSIC – STEPHEN WARBECK
SOUND – SEBASTIAN FROST
IMAGE – MARK DOUET