AN INSPECTOR CALLS by J.B. Priestley
Theatre Royal Plymouth and Tour till 23 May 2020
Box Office – 01752 267222
Review by Cormac Richards- 3 March 2020
When Stephen Daldry mounted a production of ‘An Inspector Calls’ at The National Theatre in 1992 he would little have imagined that 28 years the very same production would have been touring the USA and UK. Such was the leftfield nature of the presentation of the play that it made audiences sit up and take note. Eminent theatre critic, Sheridan Morley, was less enamoured than most, believing it to be a travesty and totally at odds with the writers’ intentions.
I first encountered the production some 15 years ago; a powerful and mysterious presentation of one of the most cleverly constructed stories in English Theatre. For those new to the play, it may seem to have been a deliberate staging; a somewhat dystopian view of a bygone age with Daliesque designs and a time period straddling two World Wars. A conventional box set might seem rather mundane on comparison.
Whether the staging works or not – and this is very much a matter of opinion – the play is allowed to shine through. Priestley barely leaves a stone unturned in his commentary; social, economic, political and class issues are all brought into the mix as well as a raft of others. Daldry’s presentation offers a far more didactic approach; the audience brought in as a participator, the Inspector’s final speech is made directly to those watching – “And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The lesson being to do unto others as we would have them do unto you. Priestley is rather more subtle, Daldry makes it that more obvious; with the play set prior to the outbreak of WW I and written at the end of WWII it is a warning of what the future holds.
Discussions on the staging could go on for ever – is it a play within a play? Why present the house as a ‘dolls house’? Why does the house appear to have exploded out of the cobbled paving? Who is the significance of the housekeeper Edna? And so on, and I am not going to try and answer them here. Suffice to say it is an arresting vision throughout with lighting and sound with more than a nod to Alfred Hitchcock, emphasised by the use of Bernard Herrmann’s composition for the film ‘Vertigo’.
Liam Brennan presents a quirky, dogged Inspector Goole (or is it ‘Ghoul’?) and he dominates with an ease and engages the audience without any awkwardness. The Birling family, at the centre of the story, are headed by Jeffrey Harmer as the self-important patriarch Arthur and Christine Kavanagh as his wife Sybil in a performance which I found a little too histrionic and with less depth than her ‘husband’. Chloe Orrock’s Sheila is the one character who grasps the nettle early on and her passage from flirty young girl to a reality-facing woman was very well done. Likewise Ryan Saunders was excellent as the rebellious son, Eric, his remorse for his actions and the consequences felt by others tangible. Alasdair Buchan provided a fairly repellent, though one-dimensional Gerald Croft.
A favourite of the educational syllabus was reflected by the youthful audience who completely packed the Theatre and whose attention span over the 110 minutes was to be admired.
This is a fascinating and fine production of a great play – is it too quirky? Does it ask too many questions of the audience? Maybe, but it is still very good entertainment and, some of the mannered performances apart, it is very well worth seeing for its sheer audacity.
INSPECTOR GOOLE – LIAM BRENNAN
SYBIL BIRLING – CHRISTINE KAVANAGH
ARTHUR BIRLING – JEFFREY HARMER
GERALD CROFT – ALASDAIR BUCHAN
SHEILA BIRLING – CHLOE ORROCK
ERIC BIRLING – RYAN SAUNDERS
EDNA – EMMA CATER
YOUNGER BOY – TRAI POMEROY
GIRL – LIBBY ELSDON
OLDER BOY – KAI WOODHOUSE
DIRECTOR – STEPHEN DALDRY
DESIGNER – IAN MACNEIL
LIGHTING DESIGN – RICK FISHER
MUSIC – STEPHEN WARBECK
SOUND – SEBASTIAN FROST