An Inspector Calls

J. B. Priestley
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring

Production photo

A young boy runs on front of stage and tries to lift the heavy curtains to peer into another world, but in his world there is an air raid with bombs dropping around while rain lashes down onto the cobbled streets. As the ‘all clear’ sounds the curtains part and the other world is revealed. In an Edwardian mansion, perched high and precariously on stilts, a well-to-do family are celebrating the engagement of their daughter, totally oblivious of the figures scuttling around in the shadows below – out of their sight and beneath their notice.

This being Stephen Daldry’s highly acclaimed inspirational production, first performed at the National in 1992, it could hardly fail, and it packs as powerful a punch as ever with every word, every pause and every nuance of meaning meticulously and perfectly timed. Priestley’s tale of morality and responsibility, and the warning of the possible consequences if people care about nothing but themselves, kept what appeared to be about two hundred teenagers quiet and spellbound from the shock of the air raid to the eerie, spine chilling conclusion, and maybe leaving them with the hope that perhaps they will eventually manage to create a better, more compassionate world.

This family are secure in their comfortable home, very conscious of their position in life, and when a police inspector calls to inform them of the suicide of a young girl they are confident that it could have nothing to do with any of them, but one by one, as he interrogates and accuses, they discover a connection, begin to feel guilty and, as their house and their world collapses they are left covered in sackcloth, crawling around in the shattered remains of their lives.

In the slightly over-blown and one dimensional images of the family each displays the expected characteristics. David Roper is Mr. Arthur Birling, the complacent, self-important, overbearing industrialist of the ‘do you know who I am?’ variety, trying to justify his dismissal of the girl which began her decline into prostitution, pregnancy and suicide, and with constant references to his many influential friends. Mrs.Sybil Birling is played by Sandra Duncan, with a nice line in ‘unintentional’ comedy – a cross between Hyacinth Bucket and Mrs. Slocombe, lines timed and delivered to comic perfection

It is in the two younger members, son Eric (Robin Whiting) and his sister Sheila (Marianne Oldham) that we see hope for the future. Beginning with Sheila’s hysterical laughter at the suggestion that she could have caused any difficulty for the girl, she begins to think, to wonder and to realise that she played her unfortunate part, while revelations from her fiancé Gerald (Alistair Simpson) cause her to break off the engagement. Eric too begins to regret wasting his life in drunken revelery.

Louis Hilyer is an impressive Inspector Goole, furiously angry at the waste of a young life and with the uncaring attitudes which caused it. His impassioned speech to the audience implores everyone to consider their actions and how they will impinge on others.

Stephen Warbeck’s evocative music sends shivers down the spine as it speaks of impending doom, with the eerie feeling that something supernatural is happening.

Priestly is telling us that we are all responsible for the fate of others, and its moralistic message is not lost, but this still remains an exciting, enthralling and top-notch thriller with multiple intriguing levels.

Touring to Milton Keynes, Salford, Cambridge, Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham, Oxford and Leicester

This production has also been reviewed (between 2001 and 2009) by Philip Fisher, Steve Orme, Kevin Catchpole, Pete Wood, Peter Lathan and Philip Seager

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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