Tuesday 18th September 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
In a world like ours and in times like these, we all need a little Priestley.
To be a little more specific, we need a good dose of straight-talking from Priestley’s eponymous hero of An Inspector Calls. This is a play in two parts: part riveting, brilliantly crafted thriller, and part brilliantly delivered life lessons. I’ve always had a soft spot for this play and while some may find it a little preachy, I find it reassuringly full of wisdom and brutal honesty.
Centring on the death of a young woman and a well to do Edwardian family, the play exposes all the frailties and flaws even the highest among us carry – and that’s just a drop in the ocean when it comes to why this play remains so timeless and universal despite the period setting. The Birling family are building both an empire and a legacy in Bromley – a fortunate match means that the family will soon find even more wealth, power and position when daughter Sheila is wed to the son of another wealthy businessman, Gerald. Son Eric is the giddy sort and raises many a raised eyebrow from mother Sybil and father Arthur. Yet as the brandy flows and the silver service shines at the dinner table of this high and mighty family, an inspector calls at the house – and he has many, many questions which will shake the very foundations of the Birling family and threaten their bright and shiny future in one fell swoop…
From the moment the thunderous score commences to the moment the last realisation occurs, Stephen Daldry’s production hums with bleak tension. Jeff Harmer is Arthur Birling. Head of the table, house, street, town, office etc etc – he has the power and he knows it. He also knows everything about everything, what with him being so very superior in every way and Harmer places this man on the borderline between being pitifully deluded and completely detestable.
Christine Kavanagh is Sybil Birling – arms-length mother, flawed philanthropist and unashamed, uncompromising snob. It’s great to see Kavanagh manage to extract a little more feeling from this character than others before have – her motherly love is more deeply flawed rather than hollow or absent. Sybil will never be sympathetic, but Kavanagh’s performance certainly takes steps to shift the ratio of haughty acidity and real feeling. And serving them both, as well as their brood of ungrateful privileged youngsters is maid Edna. Diana Payne-Myers offers a welcome brand of comic respite from the suspense as the put-upon maid – a role only as impactful as the actor makes it, and Payne-Myers makes her mark here.
Some of the characterisations from this cast are a significant departure from popular portrayals many will have seen, particularly the 1954 film and the recent 2015 BBC adaptation. Although the originality of the approaches are surprising, they absolutely work – particularly for contemporary audiences.
The most notable shift is Lianne Harvey – the first to make Sheila the silly little girl that her parents consider her to be; giggly, self-absorbed, flippant to the point of cruelty – it’s a harsh take on a character so often played under the label of ‘demure, sensitive, doe-eyed’. This Sheila is grittier and more heartless than others have dared to make her, and in terms of keeping this play fresh and lively for audiences, this is a winning feature from the production.
Hamish Riddle’s Eric is also a childish fool full of giggles, liquor and a complete disassociation from all responsibilities. Riddle’s Eric is more playful than the popular tragic depiction of this spoilt young lad in over his head and while at times the humour doesn’t always feel apt for the moment, it’s a very well considered and played characterisation.
Andrew Macklin’s Gerald Croft is the upright, upper hand, upper class type who feels his own importance and brainpower with every step he takes. He’s more fiery than other portrayals which plays nicely into the high drama and endless intensity of Daldry’s production.
But it is Liam Brennan who makes the central role his own in impressive form. He is truly gripping as Inspector Goole – relentless in his pursuit of answers and paying no mind to any and all intentions to distract, avoid or deflect. Brennan masters a tightly knit combination of ‘accessible man of the people’ and an alarmingly determined Rottweiler – his patience is limited and his temper rises accordingly, serving up some brilliantly explosive moments within a constantly simmering plot so beautifully crafted by Priestley.
Ian MacNeil’s set design leaves me torn. A breath-stealing dramatic opening of smoke, rainfall and gloom (Rick Fisher), orchestration (Stephen Warbeck) and grand use of the theatre’s velvet curtain, eventually reveal a house. A complete house, with the occupants closed off from us but for glimpses through windows.
Conceptually, this is perfect – of course such a family should close themselves off from the surrounding community and show no care for our straining ears and eyes in trying to actually see of hear anything with clarity. We’re eavesdroppers – paupers at the windows of the big house wondering how they live – but it’s rather dull after a few minutes, and the decision to keep up this illusion for an extended time somewhat diminishes its impact. Later use is as brilliant and the design itself; the house opens up and we get to see the people at last. It’s raised way above the pavement to keep us ever mindful of their distinguished position against a dismal backdrop of poorer Bromley locals…but as with everything – it’s not quite certain to withstand the forces of the Inspector.
In further demonstration of ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities, costumes are opulent and incongruous against the dull grey pavements- this is a production of such great insight and clarity that everything carries meaning, from set to costume to blocking to lighting to music – it’s all a heady, indulgent mix of metaphors and symbols which never actually feels overdone. In fact, it’s the visual designs which take this production from accomplished to outstanding – it’s just the obtuse use of a grand design early on which leaves a little watermark on the trophy…
But this is thriller at its very best: intelligent, sensitive, subtle and fiery. Despite something of a false start with the otherwise superb set, everything about this production is brilliant. It is infinitely tense yet impressively pacy, slowing down just enough to give Priestley’s most damning moments their due. The mysteries and the slow trickle of answers are expertly crafted, but the play goes beyond mere entertainment in thrilling us and challenging us; it has very genuine, very resounding messages to deliver. In our current collective state, we should probably be listening to this play and this Inspector with very keen ears…
This National Theatre production of J.B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is presented by Birling and Goole Ltd. It plays at York Theatre Royal until September 22nd 2018 and you can find tickets here. The production then continues to tour until March 2019 and more information about dates and venues can be found here.