An Inspector Calls
J B Priestley
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Stephen Daldry's astonishing production of Priestley's play about society and our responsibility to one another has made it very difficult for anyone else to produce this play without inviting comparison, but two north west theatres are trying to break the spell in their current seasons.
Next week, the Octagon in Bolton opens its autumn season with this play, but Theatre by the Lake in Keswick is already performing it as part of its six-show summer season. Daldry opened up the play to show people from the time the play was written (1945) living with the results of the thinking portrayed in the play in 1912. Director Mary Papadima also plays the story on two levels, with the family's drawing room on a raised square platform and a lower level where images from the past can reappear.
The play begins in the house of factory owner Arthur Birling whose daughter Sheila has become engaged to Gerald Croft, the son of another factory owner. The mysterious but brilliantly manipulative Inspector Goole calls on them to tell them a woman has committed suicide in the most horrible way and proceeds to suggest that each of them bares some responsibility for the woman's death through some past act of cruelty or thoughtlessness.
This in itself could be a moral tale of social responsibility, but Priestley goes further. The family suspects, after the Inspector has gone, that he wasn't a real policeman and they have been the subject of a hoax. The family is split between those who believe their reputation is safe if the man was a fraud and those who are still mortified at what they and the others have confessed to. But there is another twist at the last moment.
In Papadima's production, the lower level is where the girl appears when her photo is shown or when a character remembers her and where the Inspector keeps appearing reading a book before he first enters. This doesn't really add anything to the play and is often distracting, looking like the director doesn't trust the audience to concentrate just on people talking rather than adding an extra dimension to the play's meaning.
Other than that, the production is fine if not particularly striking. Martin Johns's set is very effective with its factory cogs and gears which are animated with Nick Beadle's clever lighting in the superfluous opening dance piece. The family scenes make the Birlings all seem happy and pleasant to one another at the start before the interrogations begin, giving a nice contrast.
Roger Delves-Broughton's Arthur Birling doesn't have as hard an edge as he is sometimes played, but Maggie O'Brien's Sybil Birling certainly does, building up her pomposity for her inevitable fall. The young siblings are played well by Laura Darrall and Peter McGovern, both devastated by the experience, and Richard Galazka is another pompous character as Gerald, who becomes quite appealing during his confession only to resume his previous position.
Peter MacQueen's Inspector is also rather mild and kindly, leaving the harshness of his words to do their work on his victims. Isabella Marshall doubles as maid Edna and the girl in the flashbacks, killing any notion, as is suggested at one point, that each of the Inspector's stories could be about a different girl.
The interval is put in an odd position, like those BBC programmes repeated on Freeview channels that suddenly stop for adverts, as this is a three-act play that has a clearly defined arc for each act and the interval has been placed in the middle of act two.
Overall it is a decent production of a play that should be revived as it powerfully gives the lie to the famous statement of an ex-Prime Minister that "there is no such thing as society".
Reviewer: David Chadderton