An Inspector Calls, Novello Theatre, 06.10.2009, 7:30pm.
An Inspector Calls, written by J.B Priestley and set in 1912, premiered in the UK after the end of the Second World War in 1946. Over sixty years later, Stephen Daldry's revival has returned to the West End, following its hugely successful inception at the National Theatre in the early 1990's. Telling the tale of the tragic demise of a seemingly anonymous young woman, Priestley's narrative is a parable of social responsibility, pitting the middle-class Birling family against the perplexing, authoritarian figure of Inspector Goole, who quite literally demolishes the foundations upon which the Birlings have built their artificial lives.
The most striking thing about this production is the breathtaking set design, which brings an affluent Edwardian neighbourhood into the theatre, complete with rain, cobbled streets, working streetlamps and an imposingly opulent house, belonging, of course, to the Birling family. The interior of the set is breathtakingly elaborate, demonstrating the disingenuous and narcissistic nature of each of the protagonists within Priestley's narrative. Ian MacNeil's scenography (complemented fantastically by Rick Fisher's lighting design) effectively brings the audience into the world of the Birling family; we at first encounter them from afar and feel almost as if we are spying on them through the windows of their house, isolated from their world of parlour games and platitudes.
As Inspector Goole arrives however, the house physically unfolds as the secrets and lies of the family are systematically revealed by their interrogator; the characters and their shameful deeds no longer have anywhere to hide on stage. The director also ensures that the audience feels an affinity with Inspector Goole from the outset of the performance, by having him make his first entrance through the auditorium, breaking down the parameters which usually exist between the fictional world represented on stage and the real world of the audience. Here the Inspector is the representative of the audience; he poses the questions which we want answered, and holds the characters to account for their appalling behaviour as they each reveal their complicity in the death of their voiceless victim, Eva Smith.
The strongest performances of the cast come from Nicholas Woodeson as Inspector Goole and Marianne Oldham as Sheila Birling. Woodeson brings nuances of his own to a character which has to find the right balance between otherworldliness and authority, and his portrayal of the Inspector as a somewhat unpredictable force echoes the many twists within Priestley's script. Oldham is suitably sensitive as Sheila, and is the only character which I felt underwent a completely earnest reversal of attitude as a result of the interrogation. Although David Roper and Sandra Duncan as Mr and Mrs Birling are adequately irritable, I didn't feel that their performances were pitched at the right level; the hysterical laughter they engage in upon realising that the Inspector isn't all he seems somehow makes a mockery of the sentiment of Priestley's writing and undermines the revelation which is made at the end of the play. Robin Whiting as Eric Birling attempts to bring a level of pathos to the conclusion, but his histrionics do little to evoke any level of empathy with the audience in view of the demonic joy exhibited by both of the older Birlings and Gerald Croft (Timothy Watson) when they believe that they have been exonerated after Goole departs.
Overall, a production which I found more engaging on a technical level than a performative one. In order to have any emotional resonance with the audience, this piece needs to evoke a semblance of realism, something which was attempted but undermined by the archaic and almost pantomime style of acting on the part of Roper and Duncan. Although sound, scenography and lighting all served to evoke a strong atmosphere, sadly I feel the performance was let down by a style of acting which diluted and detracted from the over-arching theme of collective social consciousness which Priestly endeavoured to convey when the play was first written.
(Image credit: here.)