inspetor calls head

An Inspector Calls

Wolverhampton Grand

****

IS what we see really happening now, or has the future somehow coiled itself around the present and summoned up, Dickenslike, the ghost of trials to come?

Written at the end of the Second World War J B Priestley’s masterwork is neither ghost story nor a journey through the supernatural but rather an examination of ourselves and our relationship with everyone around us.

The story is simple. Set in 1912, with the First World War on the horizon, Eva Smith, a pretty, hard-working, young girl, has committed suicide in a most painful way by drinking disinfectant, burning her insides away.

And, in the posher part of the fictional city of Brumley, somewhere in the North Midlands, the Birlings, a family with considerable industrial and pInspector Gooleolitical clout, are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Shelia to Gerald Croft, son of the Birlings’ main industrial rival, with the hope of creating a dynasty.

That is until a mysterious caller arrives, an Inspector Goole, investigating Eva Smith’s death and unpicking stitch by stitch the part in her death played by the oh so smug and happy engagement party.

Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole with Gerald (Matthew Douglas, left) and Eric (Hamish Riddle) looking on

Priestley had ideas about time shifts, which saw past present and future able to change positions, the past able to become the future, the future the past, an idea which also came out in other works.

He was also a staunch socialist and champion of social justice – having some influence on the creation of the welfare state - and his Inspector and the self-satisfied head of the Birlings family, Arthur the factory owner, could be seen as a struggle between socialism and capitalism.

Liam Brennan is excellent as Goole, injecting a little humour into the dour Scot to lighten the rising tension. As a policeman he is unconventional and driven by what he perceives as the injustices inflicted on Eva Smith. We never knew much about Goole, indeed his appearance in a rainstorm - with real rain from the flies – was as much a mystery as who he was. The Birlings bowed to his perceived authority . . . and his revelation that he had read Eva Smith’s diary, and then proceeded to hang themselves out to dry.

Arthur, played by Geoff Leesley, blusters his way through life, well-heeled and used to being in charge, keeping costs down and profits up; he is a former Lord Mayor, Alderman and always right, even when he is wrong.

His wife Sybil, played beautifully as a rather superior Lady Bracknell by RSC actress Caroline Wildi, at least until Goole gets his probing claws into her, is the last to have seen poor Eva and was her last hope.

Daughter Sheila is a rather haughty young lady in the hands of Katherine Jack until Goole strips away her Birlings’ cloak when she feels regret and even shame for what she and her family did to Eva while young son Eric, played by Hamish Riddle in a most promising professional debut, becomes the conscience of the family, seeing all the wrongs perpetrated on the unfortunate Eva for what they were, with his own part in her downfall still a revelation to come.

Matthew Douglas’s Gerald, who at first tried to help Eva finds his encounter has landed him with dire consequences – the only one to really suffer for his actions. His solution is not so much to seek pardon but to attempt to discredit the inspector, and thus turn the whole thing into an elabBiring's houseorate hoax which in turn would mean none of it really happened. Everyone can go back to how they were. No one would have done anything wrong. Eva’s death was nothing to do with them.

It was a plan that might have worked but for a double twist by Priestley to churn the stomachs of the once happy family again.

Ian MacNeil's surreal set with the Victorian Gothic mansion like a giant Wendy house

This revival of Stephen Daldry’s 1992 National Theatre production has lost none of its tension over the years, building up the story layer by layer at a relentless, stealthy pace, littered with odd characters such as Edna, the maid, played by Diana Payne-Myers, who scurries about ignored and disregarded by the family. Working class, like Eva, she doesn’t count in the world of the Birlings and Crofts.

Then there are children playing in the street, and an old radio to provide incidental music (from Stephen Warbeck) and when Sybil declares the real person responsible for Eva’s death should be publically shamed and punished a mysterious silent crowd appear on cue. All very surreal which is also the hallmark of the set.

Ian MacNeil’s design gives us a sort of Victorian Gothic Wendy house which opens up like a dolls’ house spreading action on to the cobbled street, representing the Birlings seeing themselves as larger than their real surroundings presumably. It is a very clever set with real rain and drizzle and its own dramatic moment. One small point though, rings thrown on cobbled streets chink rather than suffer the barely audible thud heard in the streets of Brumley.

And if we are being picky, the red telephone box was not introduced until 1926, some 14 years after the play was set, but then with Priestley’s ideas on time shifting who are we to question what is and isn’t possible – and it is a very effective dramatic tool as the play builds to its climax.

Priestley in some ways could be seen as an English Ibsen with the play attacking the heartlessness of capitalism and the hypocrisy of the upper middle classes, and the idea that social standing was some sort of protection from police investigation, criticism or even responsibility.

Goole’s final speech is both a warning of a future of wars and conflicts and a socialist manifesto and perhaps it’s message still applies today. Learn to get on with each other or we are doomed.

This is a fine production, acted convincingly with great skill, yet strangely there is only one character you really care about – and she is dead.

It is a classic play of the 20th century and one which still has the power to keep an audience gripped in its thrall for an hour and 45 minutes without an interval. To 06-02-16

Roger Clarke

02-02-16

An Inspector Calls had its world premiere in September 1945 in Leningrad feeding speculation that it confirmed Priestley’s left leanings, producing the play in communist Russia rather than his native capitalist Britain. The Right also claimed gleefully that the play had been rejected in Britain. The truth is more mundane. No theatre was available in London and Priestley was already a well-known writer published in many languages and his Russian translator asked if he could try Russian theatres where the play was snapped up.

The play then opened in the West End when a theatre became available the following year with Ralph Richardson as Goole, Margaret Leighton as Sheila and a young Alec Guinness as Eric.

A second calling . . .

*****

THE fact that so few tickets are still available for this National Theatre production of J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller proves that it has lost none of its pulling power.

Described as the theatrical event of our generation, it has won more awards than any other play in history, and many of the emotional messages it contains are just as relevant today.

Brilliantly staged, with a country mansion the focal point and, at times, steady rain soaking the cobbled street outside, the gripping story opens with the wealthy Birling family staging a self-satisfied dinner party while celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to upper crust Gerald Croft.

All very cosy, until the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Inspector Goole who explains that he is making inquiries into the apparent suicide death of an attractive young woman . . . and gradually it seems that all five people present may have had a hand in the tragedy.

Liam Brennan, with a Scottish accent, plays the probing policeman with far more aggression than, say, the softly-spoken Alastair Sim used in his memorable 1954 black-and-white film role as Goole (then named Poole). At one point he tears off his jacket as he quizzes the increasingly anxious family before the remarkable double twist at the end.

A superb performance, too, from Holby City actor Geoff Leesley as self-made businessman and former Lord Mayor Arthur Birling who suddenly fears for his anticipated knighthood when a possible scandal lands on his doorstep. His fiery exchanges with Inspector Goole are breathtaking.

Caroline Wildi is particularly convincing in the role of Birling’s wife, Sybil, who couldn’t possibly be involved in the investigation . . . or could she. Somehow the couple’s children Eric (Hamish Riddle), Sheila (Katherine Jack) and her fiancé, Gerald (Matthew Douglas) are all drawn into the web of intrigue in this beautifully written story.

And there is an additional shock for the audience with the spectacular and significant collapse of the family’s posh pile as the message of how to treat one’s fellow human beings is driven emphatically home.

Directed by Stephen Daldry, An Inspector Calls until Saturday February 6.

Paul Marston 

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