J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls
Leicester Curve – Touring
Tuesday 21st March – Saturday 25th March
Arriving at the Curve, we are met by the sight of dozens of GCSE students, excitedly waiting to see this latest iteration of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Indeed, I have my own sixteen-year-old student with me. It’s perfect timing to see the play live just before the start of exam season.
This has always been my issue with An Inspector Calls. On the page, it can seem a tad worthy and even turgid, but this fabulous production brings it right up-to-date and clearly delineates why it is just as relevant now as it was in 1945.
The set design by Ian MacNeil is masterful. We are transported back to Edwardian England (via 1945) where rain is falling on chilly cobbled streets, but the prosperous Birling family are cocooned in their fairy-tale castle celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to Gerald Croft (Simon Cotton).
Meanwhile, outside and down below, maid Edna (Frances Campbell) is throwing out slops and chasing off urchins. Immediately, the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is laid bare.
The Birlings’ house is a magnificent piece of stagecraft. It is strategically elevated and has all the trappings of a typical Edwardian home – hand painted wallpaper, dark mahogany furniture, a splendid grandfather clock and a plethora of pictures artfully arranged. Yet something is decidedly off-kilter. The balustrade on the balcony is rusting, the drapes look ill-fitting and tawdry, the laughter from within sounds artificial. In fact, the whole edifice looks unsteady. A sign of things to come……
Cue the entrance of the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) who arrives unexpectedly to break up the dinner party and question the guests about the agonising death by suicide of a young woman who they may all have encountered.
Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer) is the head of the family and immediately keen to flag up his credentials as a magistrate and former Lord Mayor. However, his northern roots and perhaps more ‘humble’ beginnings are betrayed through his accent. His wife Sybil Birling is a formidable woman, not to be trifled with and played with wonderful force and conviction by Christine Kavanagh.
That leaves Eric Birling (George Rowlands); at first, almost a figure of fun, he clearly drinks too much and is dominated by his forthright father. As the evening progresses, Inspector Goole sequentially forces each family member to confront their own failings, which in turn makes the audience question our own consciences.
Goole’s probing shatters the Birling family, but it’s the wider implications on the notion of community, responsibility, and accountability that make this production so germane. ‘We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,’ is the message.
Brennan is pitch perfect as the titular Inspector. His Scottish brogue lends an hypnotic quality that enhances the rhythm and cadence of the original script. You can see why the characters seem unable to withstand his questioning. Furthermore, I like the way he takes off a layer of clothing as the interrogations proceed, finally rolling up his sleeves to show that he means business and will brook no dissembling.
Orrock is deserving of special mention too, convincingly making the transition from spoilt, petulant fashionista to the voice of reason and conscience; her pristine white evening gown becoming increasingly dirty and soiled as she undergoes this metamorphosis.
Every element has coalesced in this production to bring about a mysterious and mesmerising evening’s entertainment. The lighting, by Rick Fisher, is cleverly used to suggest the passing of time and the placing of the accused ‘under the spotlight’. Music by Stephen Warbeck adds to the supernatural and elemental feel of the play, whilst sound by Sebastian Frost provides some genuinely explosive moments.
Don’t let the idea of scores of GCSE students being in the auditorium deter you. They were all impeccably behaved and it was heart-warming to see so many youngsters clearly loving the experience. Full credit to all the hardworking English teachers out there, giving students the opportunity to see the play in its true form.
As we leave the theatre, my plus-one tells me how he really enjoyed this production and how good he thinks the acting was. Meanwhile, behind us, a fellow student is heard to say, ‘The maid was mint.’
Well, you can’t say fairer than that!
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes (no interval)