An Inspector Calls, Nottingham Theatre Royal
As an English teacher, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’ve never actually read An Inspector Calls, so I absolutely jumped at the chance to review this 30th Anniversary production of the multi-award-winning National Theatre revival of JB Priestley’s classic thriller and find out exactly why this play has stubbornly retained its spot on GCSE Literature specifications since the 1990s. Indeed, world-renowned director Stephen Daldry’s original 1992 production is credited with having renewed interest in the play, after it fell out of favour, so I’m excited to see what has made this particular production so enduring (and gained it four Tony awards and three Olivier awards, to name but a few of its 19 major accolades) – and, boy, does it live up to expectations.
First performed in the Soviet Union in 1945, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and opening in London the following year, An Inspector Calls puts middle-class hypocrisy under the spotlight, and examines the implications of social responsibility. It begins with the arrival of mysterious Officer Goole, who interrupts the engagement party of Sheila Birling, daughter of affluent manufacturer Arthur Birling, to interrogate the family about the suicide of a young woman and the part they all played in her untimely and, ultimately, preventable death.
From the moment the curtain goes up to reveal the rain quite literally falling on a cobbled street in Bramley, the audience are captivated by Ian McNeil’s ingenious designs. The Birling’s grand house stands raised above the cobbled street below, and the class commentary is made clear immediately as the Birlings, in all their finery, enjoy their party enclosed in the privacy of their house, while dirty-clothed children play in the street below. That is, until the house opens up to reveal the inside of the dining room, symbolising the revelations to come and further enforcing the class distinctions as the actors make clever use of levelling by moving between the house and the street.
Brennan’s masterful portrayal of Inspector Goole oozes with confidence and superiority as he plays the role of puppeteer, enlisting the help of the brilliant children (Tyen Tailor-Bird, Evie Hood and Vincent Oliver), ensemble (Philip Stewart, Beth Tuckey, Maceo Cortezz and Rue Blenkinsop) and even the theatre itself, to assist him in giving the Birlings the moral dressing down that they so desperately deserve – indeed, he even undresses himself throughout the performance, shedding a layer of formality with each new victim of his interrogation, finally rolling up his sleeves to tackle the formidable Mrs Birling. Christine Kavanagh commands the stage as the indomitable matriarch, swanning in half way through the action to try and uphold the family’s honour, but also sensitively captures the grief of a parent devastated by the truth about her not-so-perfect children.
Jeffrey Harmer’s Mr Birling reeks of the arrogance and need for acceptance which characterises middle-class social climbers (we can even smell his cigar), desperate to maintain his image as a prominent and affluent businessman in line for knighthood, though retaining the northern accent which hints at Birling’s somewhat lower origins. Harmer captures Mr Birling’s growing frustration with Inspector Goole’s persistent questions with cool control, never quite tipping into shouting but ensuring that his anger simmers just beneath the surface.
Simon Cotton is brilliant as the cocksure and snobbish Gerald Croft; he absolutely nails the upper-class swagger, while showing off his versatility by giving a beautifully sensitive and emotional portrayal of Gerald’s reaction when the reality of his loss hits home.
Eric Birling provides much of the comedy in the first half of the play (there is no interval, though the curtain does fall and rise again to indicate the beginning of the second act), and George Rowlands gives a hugely endearing performance as the Birlings’ slightly alcoholic and somewhat disappointing son. Rowlands really comes into his own at the end of the second act, and the audience are left feeling a mixture of disappointment, revulsion and eventually pity as he reveals the part he played in the girl’s death.
Chloe Orrock triumphs as the initially petulant and entitled Sheila Birling, who quite quickly becomes the voice of reason in the play after accepting her own guilt and imploring others to do the same. Orrock is most believable as she gives her account of how her own vanity and jealousy contributed to the girl’s downfall, appealing to the audience to understand it from her perspective.
Special mention must also go to Frances Campbell, who plays the housekeeper, Edna. Campbell never leaves the stage, spending most of the performance knitting in the shadows or fetching and carrying after the characters – in particular Mrs Birling, for whom she actually rolls out a red carpet.
Stephen Warbeck’s haunting score enhances the performance, reflecting the tension as it builds climactically at all the right moments, while the use of a sustained note in act two keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. And moments of silence are used to equal effect in play – there are moments where you could hear a pin drop.
The use of lighting stands out to me as particularly effective, as we are subtly taken from late evening, through to sunrise and back again; all cleverly designed by Rick Fisher.
And my personal enjoyment of the play was only enhanced by that fact that much of the audience this evening is made up of school groups, who ooed, aahed, gasped and even cheered at all the right moments (almost as if they’d studied the play and knew what was coming…). For many of them this will have been their first experience of live theatre – and what a way to begin their theatrical education. This play is as relevant now as it ever was, and Stephen Daldry’s production reminds the audience of this quite starkly, as we leave feeling the need to evaluate our own morality and responsibility to our community and those less fortunate than ourselves. This is an exceptional production and one well worthy of all its accolades.
An Inspector Calls runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 21st Jan