Like most sixteen-year-olds across the country, I studied An Inspector Calls at GCSE level, and four years ago I saw the play performed on stage in London. Walking into the Theatre Royal this evening, therefore, I felt more than prepared to turn my critical eye towards the performance. Although initially disappointed to see from the staging that the production had changed very little in the intervening years, my doubts were soon abated by the talented performances of the cast members and their fantastic use of the stage.
Taking the form of a ‘whodunnit’ and, thank goodness, impressing far more than other West End shows of its kind, such as The Mousetrap, An Inspector Calls is a disturbing play which seeks to unravel the case of Eva Smith: a young woman who desperately takes her life by drinking disinfectant. Through the ominous and omnipotent presence of Inspector Goole (played by Liam Brennan), we are introduced to the family responsible for her undoing, realising, as the Inspector reveals each new piece of the story, that they are all guilty of individual moral crimes. Each member of the horrifically prejudiced and selfish Birling family was excellently portrayed. Caroline Wildi, playing Sybil, perfectly executed the nasal and witchy voice of the Brumley elite, often adding some light comedy to this distressing play with her well-timed comic pauses.
She was matched in her horrid caricature of wealth and privilege by her husband (Tim Woodward), whose fixation with knighthood and the family image positioned him as a rather loathsome figure. At no point was this clearer than when the family believed they had been tricked by the Inspector, and Arthur Birling (Woodward) turned his back to the audience, seemingly crying with relief and then erupting into gales of laughter. The image was deeply repulsive as he hacked and coughed in sheer delight, forgetting the injustices he had inflicted upon Eva. Hamish Riddle’s professional theatre debut as Eric Birling deserves special credit as he successfully captured the madness of a young man who has lost all respect for himself, and for his family. Stumbling across the stage drunk and distressed, he almost invited audience sympathy as his slight figure and rumpled, disordered clothing reminded us that he was barely out of boyhood.
“Hamish Riddle’s professional theatre debut as Eric Birling deserves special credit as he successfully captured the madness of a young man who has lost all respect for himself”
But what about the Inspector? The most anticipated character in the play had quite a reputation to uphold. With a thick Scottish accent and more than one passionate outburst, Liam Brennan did not fail to impress. He was at once imposing and likeable, intimidating and reassuring. Brennan’s finest moment, however, came nearing the play’s end with his final appearance on stage. After he commanded the technician box to “stop” the performance with raised hands, the audience was flooded in light, dramatically shattering the fourth wall and thus implicating us in the drama. Stepping forward with the young boy (Caleb Kingsley) who shadowed him throughout the play, he addressed the audience, asking them to look at themselves and to consider what these divisions in society will achieve. The moment felt improvised as Brennan heavily gesticulated and paused for effect, slightly stumbling over his words so that he mirrored the inflections of natural speech. His address seemed genuine and honest in a play filled with lies and deceit.
One of the most notable aspects of the production – which I remember from my first viewing – was the stage design, and four years on it continues to be one of the most creative and interesting sets I have seen in theatre. The action was performed in and around an elevated house-like structure which opened up like a doll’s house to reveal the characters inside, sitting around a dinner party table. The miniature home suggested to the audience that the characters inside were like dolls in the Inspector’s moral game, to be manipulated and questioned as he desired. As the family moved from the protection of their home into the neutral space of the street, their illusion of security was shattered (if you see the play, you will understand how the director achieves this quite literally!) It is also used to comic effect as the characters poke their heads out of small windows and the tiny door in an absurd manner, their oversized bodies producing several laughs from the audience.
“By fine-tuning certain elements, this will become a near perfect production”
Although, generally-speaking, I am not a fan of the hammy ‘whodunnit’, this performance of An Inspector Calls is worth a trip to the theatre. By fine-tuning certain elements – perhaps, for example, the choreography of the small fight which breaks out among some of the family members – this will become a near perfect production. If you fancy an evening of entertainment that will both challenge and excite your inner detective, this is the play for you… but you may never look at a ringing telephone in the same way again.
An Inspector calls is running at Theatre Royal Nottingham until Saturday 14th November. For more info, click here