Currently touring the UK, Stephen Daldry’s ambitious production of An Inspector Calls adds a strong dose of melodrama to J. B. Priestley’s chilling thriller.
Though first performed in 1945, the play will be familiar to many students and young adults who studied the text at school. Remaining faithful to the original plot and script, the story opens with the Birling family celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to a reputable gentleman named Gerald Croft. The festivities are interrupted, however, by an unexpected visit from a mysterious inspector who has come to investigate the death of a young woman.
Without a doubt, the most impressive aspect of this adaptation is the production design, particularly Ian MacNeil’s thrilling set and costume design. The Birling home, standing alone in the middle of the stage, is surreal in its proportions, with the house’s front façade opening up to reveal the Birling’s dining room. Though traditionally written as a piece of drawing-room theatre, the play escapes the confines of the impressively crafted Birling home, with the cast cleverly utilising the ample space provided by the Festival Theatre. Yet at the same time, the Birling home remains an integral part of the action, symbolising the Birling’s world (literally) coming crashing down around them.
In the titular role, Liam Brennan offers a well-measured Inspector Goole who seamlessly goes from patiently concerned to incensed by the selfish and careless actions of the Birling family. His gentle demeanour allows him to play on the emotions of the audience, stressing the various injustices Eva Smith suffered up until her death. His sparring with Jeffrey Harmer’s Arthur Birling is particularly tense and exciting to watch. That said, the supernatural and more sinister elements of the role are lost in this characterisation, making the final moments of the story less impactful.
As for the rest of the cast, they all do well to maintain the level of suspense and tension between the characters. Rather than opt for a more naturalistic performance, they all lean into the melodramatic nature of the plot. This again has an impact on the emotional pull of Priestley’s writing. Though Sheila is supposed to be the emotional crutch of the play – as well as the voice of reason and responsibility – Chloe Orrock’s performance is often too hammy to make the message of the play stick naturally.
Generally, this search for emotional depth feels too forced throughout the production. Some elements feel superfluous, such as the young child actors and the silent ensemble that appear briefly towards the end. While it seems obvious that they are meant to represent the many people that suffer at the hands of selfish/self-interested families like the Birlings, it’s too on the nose.
Though this production may be too stagey for some, Priestley’s slow-paced drama continues to captivate audiences with its suspense and the many secrets that are revealed. Almost eight decades on, the message of An Inspector Calls continues to be relevant today, and makes for an entertaining night of theatre.