Sometimes when the set is a salient point in a review it is because other aspects of the production fall short of the mark. This is not the case here, as the core cast is very strong. What’s more, this revival of the National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls is something significantly different to what might be reasonably expected from a play set in 1912. The costumes are of the period, as are the clipped tones of the upper middle classes. But the opening scene had me rather bamboozled.
To begin with, the main characters, Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) excluded, are behind closed doors. More than that, they converse behind closed doors, and what they’re saying isn’t always clear. All this speaking upstage and muffled dialogue put me off. For some reason I tend to find the first section of JB Priestley’s plays a harder slog than most people do enough as it is, and here, without even being able to see the characters properly, a creeping sense of frustration began to take hold.
To my relief, this bizarre arrangement did not last long, even if I never entirely shook off the much stronger sense of detachment than a more conventional production would have provided. While there is some inventive use of child actors, albeit in non-speaking parts, I am not sure what benefit the inclusion of a number of supernumeraries (Ali Godfrey, Anne-Marie Hughes, Kayleigh O’Connor, Chloe Orrock, Gillian Peters, Mark Peters, Hugh Roderick, Martin Rossen, Jacqui Shaw, Andrew Shufflebotham, Paul Tate) added to the show, as they proved more of a distraction to the dialogue and narrative than an enhancement.
Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole was a convincing investigator, and Brennan displayed a most honourable temperament as his monologue was interrupted when a mobile phone loudly sounded in the audience at the worst possible moment at this press night performance. I would not have been nearly as dignified had I been in his shoes at that moment. Returning quickly to the production itself, neither the older generation, in the form of Arthur Birling (Clive Francis) and his wife Sybil (Barbara Marten) nor capitalism in general are treated with a sympathetic ear. I couldn’t help thinking of BBC Television’s Fawlty Towers whenever the authoritarian Arthur barked at his other half, while Marten’s Sybil seemed to be speaking in an accent distinctly different from her natural speaking voice, the sort of deeper tones Baroness Thatcher adopted prior to her Downing Street years.
This is one of those shows where the audience understands what’s going on before some of the characters do, adding to the enjoyment of the play, at least in this instance. The best character development for me is in Sheila Birling (Carmela Corbett), Arthur and Sybil’s daughter, so raw and engaging in a relative openness of mind. Eric (Hamish Riddle), Sheila’s brother, rather unloved and rather sensitive, even evokes sympathy in the usually blunt and occasionally forceful Inspector. It’s a sterling West End debut performance for Riddle.
The music swells to ridiculous levels at two points in the show, once drowning out Sheila in an early scene, and again when Gerald Croft (Matthew Douglas), the man engaged to Sheila, delivers a twist in the narrative. It was like an episode of Masterchef, where the pretentious emotion-inducing melodramatic music reduces me to laughter when it was designed to reduce me to tears, or at least a sense that something critical is going on.
But deficiencies of this nature are more than outweighed by a truly excellent cast. I must admit to never before having seen a theatre production of An Inspector Calls, and I am pleased that wrong has now been put right. A captivating and thought-provoking show.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Stephen Daldry’s multi award-winning production of JB Priestley’s classic thriller returns to the West End for a strictly limited season.
Hailed as the theatrical event of its generation, winning more awards than any other production in history, this magnificent NATIONAL THEATRE presentation has thrilled more than 4 million people worldwide. Now Daldry (Oscar-nominated Director of The Reader, The Hours and Billy Elliot) returns to re-direct his masterpiece at London’s Playhouse Theatre.
When Inspector Goole arrives unexpectedly at the prosperous Birling family home, their peaceful dinner party is shattered by his investigations into the death of a young woman. His startling revelations shake the very foundations of their lives and challenge us all to examine our consciences. As relevant now as it was when Priestley wrote the play, this is a must-see for a whole new generation of theatregoers.
An Inspector Calls
The Playhouse Theatre
Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5DE
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Show Opened: 4th Nov 2016
Booking Until: 4th Feb 2017