The Inspector Is Back!

20
September
2019

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An Inspector Calls – Mayflower Theatre

An Inspector Returns (again)

Images: Mark Douet

It is three years since JB Priestley’s thriller – and award winning Scottish actor, Liam Brennan, who plays the title role – last called at The Mayflower. Three more years to add to the impressive couple of decades that Stephen Daldry’s revolutionary take on this classic has been taking to the stage.

In fact, four million people have seen this radically different version and the show has received a raft of awards globally during its long running revival, whilst boasting no less than six major national tours.

Hamish Riddle and Lianne Harvey in An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, P.W. Productions on tour 2018/19 Directed by Stephen Daldry Designed by Ian MacNeil Lighting by Rick Fisher Associate Director Julian Webber Photo by Mark Douet

I had expected, or rather hoped, that I might be going to see a slightly different version but apart from a change of cast and subtle variations of the characters and their actions it was the same, dramatic, interpretation that I reviewed in April 2016. In fact the printed programme (I keep them all) is virtually identical, almost word for word apart from a typographic and colour makeover.

I say I hoped that it might be different because I was not entirely sold the first time around, although I continue to accept that I may be a voice in the wilderness on this one.

I keep wondering what JBP might make of the pyrotechnics, the doll’s house set which opens up, falls over with a great crashing of silverware and the somewhat confusing mixture of timelines (the play is set in 1912 but features WW2 overtones and a well to do family that has to step outside to use a red phone box).

Inspector

True, the play is wordy by today’s standards and set in a traditional Edwardian dining room it could test the boredom threshold of a modern audience; but I still maintain that the staging of this version is needlessly over-dramatic in the special effects department and the set of the dining room on stilts is faintly comical with its tiny doors through which actors have to crouch to enter and exit.

Inspector

So for traditionalists, I suggest you close your eyes to the amazing but slightly distracting visual spectacle and listen carefully to the words so skillfully penned by Priestley and brought to life by a very polished ensemble of actors.

Listen as the Birling family – pompous, privileged, cloistered, is brought down from its fragile pedestal by the arrival of the mysterious Inspector Goole and is forced to examine its deeds and beliefs as it is painstakingly revealed that each and every one of the family, including the son-in-law to be, has played their part in the suicide of a vulnerable, homeless girl.

Jeffrey Harmer as Arthur Birling (who is in line for a possible knighthood and don’t we know it) is totally convincing as the Midlands industrialist whose refusal to pay the going rate of 25 shillings a week to his workers starts the chain of events.

Matching Arthur perfectly is his haughty, shallow wife Sybil Birling (great characterisation from Christine Kavanagh) and Alasdair Buchan as the philandering Gerald Croft (son of Sir Gerald Croft, which rather says it all), engaged to the beautiful but troubled daughter Sheila Birling, whose vanity adds to the misery.

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Chloe Orrock as Sheila stands out as the performer of the night for me, ranging from immature, cocooned young girl who becomes hysterically unhinged, finally seeing herself and her fragmented family properly for the first time.

Another convincing and dramatic performance comes from Ryan Saunders plays the equally disturbed Birling heir, Eric, who obviously doesn’t see eye to his with his domineering father and hits the bottle in the process.

Liam Brennan puts in another competent, polished performance as the Inspector – even if he is no longer mysterious and sinister once his trademark broad-rimmed hat and coat are removed and he gratefully accepts a cup of tea and a biscuit from Edna, the maid.

I would have preferred to see him infallible, unflappable, less human, more mysterious and judgmental but that is not a criticism of his acting abilities, more of the direction. The question remains, of course, at the end: is Goole real, or a metaphor for morality?

Priestley’s masterpiece, actually written in the 1940s with the hindsight of what might ironically unfold in those pre-WW1 years, continues to intrigue and entertain. The language may seem slightly dated but it is a period drama and faithful to that era.

It is also obviously still on the educational syllabus, judging by the coach loads of young students who turned up and who were obviously gripped by this rather different visionary adaptation of the book they may have become familiar with (once they settled down, that is).

Once again I fully accept that I may be in a minority in yearning for a simpler, less quirky staging. Today’s entertainment media, whether on the big screen or small, or the stage, has raised the bar for excitement and dramatic effect and that has now become the norm.

So be it – you can’t argue with four million satisfied audience members can you? But personally I hope that someone will soon take this wonderful story and rework it into a more faithful rendition of the original.

David Cradduck