The National Theatre’s production of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 An Inspector Calls now playing at ArtsEmerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, MA remains a fascinating political theatre piece. When first completed, there was no theatre available in London so Priestly offered it to Russia where it played successfully in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow. Its 1946 London début was at the Old Vic with Ralph Richardson – one of England’s greatest actors – as the inspector. The work remained popular for quite a few years and was translated into a number of languages, shown on television in 1948, again in 1961, and turned into a film that appeared in 1954.
However, by the early 1990s, An Inspector Calls had become the “go to” play for amateur theatre groups in the U.K., an incentive for Stephen Daldry to direct it. Daldry focused on Priestley’s socialist views, modernized the scenery making it an actor in its own right, added supernumeraries who represent the poor, and used lighting that at times suggests war and at others climate change.
The Birlings, an upper-middle-class family, live in a luxurious house set high above the street. On a few occasions, the front of the house swings open, symbolizing the family’s brief exposure to reality. In the street below hungry people rummage through trash searching for food. “An Inspector Calls” takes place in April of 1912, two years before the outbreak of World War I. It occurs in Brumley, a fictional factory town where most of its residents seem poor.
The family is in the dining room celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Leanne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), the son of a business competitor of Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer) who regards himself as the family patriarch. He talks at great length about how a man has to look after himself and his family without concern for others.
Since the windows and door are closed at the opening, the audience is forced to strain to hear and see what is going within. As the family and guest talk, a man wearing a trench coat and a fedora (Liam Brennan) comes down the aisle and up the stairs leading to the stage and rings the bell to the house. He is Inspector Goole (note the name) who has come to question everyone about the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith which he precedes to do one by one without setting a foot inside, armed only with a photo of the deceased. Although everyone denies having caused harm, the truth is outed bit by bit and in a surprising manner.
The play and J. B. Priestley’s political views remain timely. We do not have to look very far to see poverty being ignored and people suffering the effects of inequality.
An Inspector Calls is well acted by all. Lianne Harvey who undergoes a change of values is excellent as the betrayed fiancée. Christine Kavanagh is wonderful in the role of the snobbish and selfish wife and mother. Hamish Riddle is believable as Eric Birling, the immature, dishonest, and drunken son, who like his sister, comes to regret his behavior. Jeff Harmer is a fittingly unlikable narcissist as the father. Andrew Macklin is equally narcissistic as the ex-fiancé. Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole is mysterious, strong-minded, and believable.
Stephen Daldry’s production was a joy to attend.
This article was originally published in Capital Critics Circle on March 19, 2019, and has been republished with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.