Writer: J B Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
JB Priestley’s classic drama, An Inspector Calls is a timeless, and in this case, extremely timely piece of theatre. Although first performed in 1945 (in Moscow, surprisingly), the drama takes place on a single evening in 1912. Examining the need for a truly compassionate society, it should be essential viewing for the likes of several ex-Prime Ministers who rake in millions for after-dinner speeches, and perhaps our current PM could also benefit from a viewing, as he has recently paid a fortune to enlarge the National Grid in order to power a huge new swimming pool at one of his mansions (whilst several hundred public baths have been forced to close). It is unfortunate that the play’s crystal-clear message is completely lost on those who rule. Witness this week’s UK budget; the rich get richer, whilst the poor continue to suffer. Short-sighted, selfish, cruel, and ultimately damaging to the whole of society. Will we never learn?
Anyway, what about this show at the grand old Liverpool Empire? Well, it’s a revival of the all-conquering, audacious production that won numerous awards back in the 90s. With his National Theatre debut, Director Stephen Daldry successfully transformed a traditional single set play (the dining room of the wealthy Birling family) into a broad, surreal epic.
In the years preceding World War One, the Birling family are enjoying their vast wealth. Arthur Birling has a highly profitable string of factories, with any hint of rebellion by his underpaid and overworked employees ruthlessly crushed. The play begins with the family enjoying a lavish evening meal, in celebration of the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of a rival industrialist. As a lead into the traditional opening, a young boy enters from the auditorium, and struggles to open the massive heavy stage curtains on The Empire’s impressively enormous stage. Perhaps connecting the evening’s audience to the fiction about to be presented? We’re all in it together?
Once the curtain is raised, we are astonished to be confronted with a supremely curious landscape, comprising of rain-sodden cobbled streets, a wrecked telephone box, and what appears to be a scale model of an expensive, ornate townhouse, raised up on skeletal black struts, that seem to be erupting from a hole in the ground. Whilst pale-faced, hungry children play in the puddles, dressed in rags, we can hear the sounds emanating from the Birling house. The family are clearly enjoying their evening, and we catch glimpses of them through the comically tiny windows. The actors are crowded into a doll’s house of a dining room, and occasionally pop a head through the balcony door to peer out. It is an arresting sight. Disturbing, confusing, and certainly unusual.
The idea, it seems, is to emphasise that the Birlings live on another plane of existence. Far above, and emotionally removed from the poorer denizens of the earth, who flit about in the dark and the cold. Tory Britain, anyone? Enter the Inspector. Illuminated beneath a single, uncommonly tall street lamp, in a homage to ‘The Exorcist’, he calmly gazes up at the Birling residence, whilst benignly acknowledging the playing children around him. The mysterious Inspector Goole is investigating the tragic suicide of a young woman, who has recently been dismissed from Birling’s factory for helping to organise a strike for more pay. Gradually, we learn that every member of the family has encountered the woman at some point in her wretched life, and each has been hurtful or spiteful towards her. Her death, it seems, is the result of a chain of events, leaving her with no way out. The family will soon begin to crumble, as they realise their individual, and collective guilt.
Rather than have the traditional dining room scenes, with each family member questioned in turn, the interrogations are carried out below the house, on the muddy, damp street. Each character being extracted from the comfort of their tiny, privileged existence, and forced to face their inner selves and the consequences of their actions. The echo chamber is breached, and the Birlings are forced to confront the grim reality of Edwardian society. Wrenching each character from their natural habitat, and isolating them in such a decayed and alien landscape, works perfectly in revealing their increasing vulnerability, as the sinister and manipulative Inspector painstakingly penetrates their psyche.
Jeffrey Harmer makes for a solid Arthur Birling; huffing and puffing and striding the stage like a rooster. He is the big man. The entrepreneur. The rising politician, with a direct line to the local bigwigs, and in a state of near-constant indignation. Harmer makes himself look twice as big as everybody else, and his gradual collapse, as the Inspector gnaws away at his pompous and arrogant surface is expertly communicated. His wife, Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) embodies the delusional, aloof, and fatally sanctimonious matriarch. Her arrogance and supreme confidence in her position ultimately leading to a revelation of awful consequence.
Chloe Orrock is frankly superb as their cosseted daughter, Sheila, and is particularly effective as a privileged young woman coping with the terrible truth of her family, her part in the central tragedy, whilst slowly realising there can be only one path to redemption. Sheila’s devious fiancé, Gerald, is played with Errol Flynn style relish, and moustache twirling charisma by Simon Cotton (ofttimes channelling Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart from Blackadder). A tense scene between the couple, involving an outraged Sheila delivering an instant physical rebuke to a mealy-mouthed remark by Gerald, is greeted with deafening supportive applause, and whoops of joy from an audience including several school parties. There are many moments in the play when outdated attitudes mirror modern day, ‘non-PC’ behaviour. It was refreshing to see that many of the youthful audience simply had no tolerance for it.
Wayward son Eric Birling is wonderfully played by George Rowlands, who gives a superbly nuanced performance. Developing from a drippy, spoilt man-child into a distraught, chastened, and broken adult, who reveals an inner strength and integrity to accept his faults. This reviewer predicts a bright future for Mr Rowlands. The pivotal role of Inspector Goole is played by a gruff, no-nonsense Liam Brennan, whose Scots accented vocals are a little difficult to pick up during his first few minutes, but perhaps this is a deliberate ploy meant to introduce the character as a simple, mild-mannered policeman. As the play progresses, Brennan’s delivery becomes clearer and much more direct, as the character displays his increasingly impatience, and righteous anger steadily growing as his quarry begin to wither before his laser focussed intensity.
Lighting design by Rick Fisher is simply beautiful, elegantly echoing classic film noir, and adding enormously to an overwhelmingly unnerving atmosphere. Stephen Warbeck’s music perfectly compliments the visuals, with at least a couple of tracks paying homage to Hitchcock masterpieces including Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo. Designer Ian MacNeil’s set is a classic, and an absolute triumph in helping to truly open out the play. Following his original direction of An Inspector Calls, Stephen Daldry went on to achieve great success in the film world, with Oscar nominated hits such as Billy Elliot and The Hours. His ground-breaking work on Priestley’s classic was sensational, and has lost none of its magic over the past three decades.
The only weak point in this production is in Inspector Goole’s final scene, which is a little mawkish, and involves a rather laborious and repetitive speech, delivered directly to the audience. There really is no need to explain the themes of the play in such basic detail. We are quite capable of working it out for ourselves. Thankfully, the aftermath of the Inspector’s visit delivers a devastating coda, and a terrifying last line of dialogue. Running without an interval resulted in a good few audience members (mainly the school children) having to exit the auditorium for toilet breaks, which was a little irritating during dramatic scenes. However, this is a quite superb production, which needs to be seen by everybody. Especially those in power.
Runs until Saturday 18 March 2023