Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Tuesday 3rd May, 2016.
I had very high hopes for the production as soon as I saw the impressive set. The play opened with copious amounts of smoke, befitting a famously ambiguous and yet didactic play; the dramatic smoke cleared to reveal a powerful symbol: the Birling’s house. A complete house, without the invisible walls; a solid, imposing structure on an otherwise bare and purposefully dreary street set. The concept of that house, on an uneven and unstable pedestal, rough around the edges and with a clear ‘black hole’ beneath was a fantastic image of where the Birling’s foundations met the grey and decaying world of the lower classes out on the pavement. Two worlds colliding without touching; so far, so good.
Now, I don’t often sit in the gods at the theatre but on this evening, I did. Unfortunately, sitting in the gods for this production meant that it began with listening to radio play while staring at a miniature house, from a long way off, for a full ten minutes. Not ideal, but then, directors are rarely considering those with a Bird’s Eye view when experimenting with such ‘innovative’ staging. I say ‘innovative’ in this way as I have not seen ‘An Inspector Calls’ performed on stage before and although I thought the concept of an entire house on stage, doll’s house style was rather original, it wasn’t really entirely necessary. I had a sense of dread as time passed, wondering how long the Birlings would spend closed into that house where we pigeons could not see. However, with zest, the doll’s house front was flung open and there was the Birling’s dining room in all its…hmmm. No. No grandeur really, just a doll’s house innards- miniature and unimpressive; nothing nearing my impressions of the grand Birling household. I counter; the house was part of a larger set and so inevitably, it could never be a life- sized house if it were to appear ‘whole’ as it did. Yet I could not shake the disappointment in that miniature version of the Birling’s overbearing wealth; the initial impressive impact of that house lost its charm as soon as life-sized actors were present and having to bend double to fit themselves through the front door.
The cast were, to my mind, well selected. Arthur was a bulldozer of a man, Sergeant-major in volume and entirely in keeping with Priestley’s depiction. Gerald was slightly more weaselish than I had previously considered, but the minor shift was well crafted. I enjoyed Sheila’s grit in this production; I always considered the Sheilas on film to be far too tame for a woman taking charge of her own morals and attempting to do the same for her family. Sybil was very interesting. She was suitably acidic and heartless and yet did, contrary to the original, display weaknesses that again, I appreciated as an alternative to my own long-held interpretations. Inspector Goole was sufficiently imposing in my view and yet I didn’t quite embrace his more informal style at times (would Priestley’s Goole have been seen reclining on some steps as if catching up with mates in a beer garden?) But perhaps I’m being too ‘traditionalist’ there; I will happily praise the entire cast (including those representing the lower classes in minor roles) as being very good renditions of Priestley’s originals.
My highlights and my criticism are intertwined regarding this production; as a concept, I thought the symbolism of the Birling house was brilliant. However, that same brilliant concept meant that a disagreeable amount of time was spent staring down at a flimsy, closed structure for those of us way up high. The error is most likely mine; to sit so far away from the stage as to not be able to see the expressions on the faces in a production such as this was foolish; ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a master class in tension and tension is most palpable close up.
The great moments of this production for me were the dramatic mini- finale, with the Birling house toppling and shattering was very ‘Phantom’-esque (and succeeded in making many audience members around me jump); and the Inspector’s ‘stepping out’ of the set to address the audience directly. Priestley’s enduring message ended up centre stage in this production and appropriately so.