Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

An Inspector Calls

J B Priestley
Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Sherman, Cardiff
(2006)

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Director Barry Kyle ponders the political resonances of Priestley's play in his programme notes. Kyle discusses Priestley's post-war examination of a crumbling society that had learned nothing in the thirty-odd years that passed since the play's 1912 setting. Kyle sees this warning as having as much relevance today as it did then: he pulls out Arthur Birling's reference to the "unsinkable" Titanic, and holds it up as a warning that unless we change our ways, "we will again be…just a silly society drifting towards its iceberg." Against this backdrop, Kyle's production attempts to dramatically forewarn the Birlings (and the audience) of their fate, but this is at the expense of sensitive direction.

Nevertheless, Kyle benefits from some strong performances, most notably from Elizabeth Counsell. Her Sybil has a rigid, cast-iron respectability, making her ultimate undoing all the more agonising. Her restrained horror at the confessions of her son-in-law to be, Gerald Croft, for example, (convincingly portrayed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams), strikes at the very heart of that guarded Edwardian propriety against which Priestley raged. Dennis Herdman gives a controlled and commanding performance as Eric Birling, the drink-addled son. Robert Blythe's brash northern Arthur Birling is authoritative but lacks any real subtlety, and his fuzzy delivery often buries lines. Rosanna Lavelle does well to anchor the emotional reaction of the family to their enforced introspection, but she relates to her fiancé and her family with a very relaxed and modern physicality, which doesn't always sit easily with the period setting. This may be as much to do with the direction as the character choices, (Lavelle drapes herself across furniture and even splayed out on the floor, like a twenty-first century teenager), but detracts from an otherwise sound performance.

The most disappointing performance is from Aaron Cass as the Inspector. His laboured delivery has nothing of the inscrutability and intrigue that is clearly called for in the text. Sheila reassures Gerald in the first act when he apologises for not addressing his confession to her, saying "somehow he [Goole] makes you". In fact, there is little that is compelling about Cass's performance.

The set and the direction also conspire to muddy the sense of time. The actors wear period costumes, and sit in turn of the century furniture, scattered and forever re-positioned around the barren raised dais, which serves as the family home. This minimalism, along with the backdrop of digital images, is incongruous, and the cast have a far harder time creating a sense of that cosy, Edwardian interior into which they have retreated.

At times the set is used to some effect: designer Martyn Bainbridge has the actors enter and exit via a corridor of gauze, (well lit by Arnim Friess), so that they take on an ethereal, ghostly quality which works well. But the digital projections are, at best, distracting, and at worst, upstage the actors. The moment when Sybil drops her guard in the first act is a powerful one, which an actress of Counsell's calibre is more than capable of doing justice to. However, the series of stills which ripple across the screens, spell out Sybil's inner-turmoil in visual melodrama and detract from the integrity of the moment. The performance I saw was packed with school parties, whose honesty was telling: for them, this was a moment of pure comedy.

This is an intricate, text-heavy play which will always present staging challenges. Overall the production was an engaging one and the cast worked well, but they suffered from heavy-handed direction and an unhelpful set.

Reviewer: Allison Vale