Be Sure To Visit This House
Review: An Inspector Calls
Directed By Stephen Daldry
A National Theatre Landmark Production
Through March 14
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
When the curtain rises for An Inspector Calls, now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, a magnificent Victorian mansion appears center stage shrouded in mist and rain. It is rather breathtaking to see as we hear the occupants talking over dinner. Eventually, the sides of the house swing back revealing the diners while allowing the audience to get to know each character.
At first I thought the house would steal the show, but nothing could take away from the fine acting on display over the next 100 minutes of this fast paced production filled with rapid fire dialog.
J.B. Priestly’s play which was written in 1945 and is set in 1912, takes in place the home of the prosperous Birling family, celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Maclin). Croft’s family runs a company that competes with the Birling’s firm, and the wedding appears to be as much a business merger as an affair of the heart.
The mood begins to change quickly when the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives and begins questioning the individuals about a young woman named Eva Smith. Eva has taken her own life and the Inspector acts as a conscience while going from person to person while finding blame in each for driving the young Smith to such despair.
Priestly made no attempt to hide his agenda and it is clear the story comes down to a very black and white social commentary; wealthy industrialist is cruel and exploitative while the workers have no control over their lives. It is a theme that will be popular with many of today’s Millennials who seem to be quite taken with socialism, but it does not lend itself to discussion. Priestly has written a work that is more of a sermon promoting rather than an argument for his beliefs.
Does this mean only people who agree with the author should see it? Not at all. Actually, it is a very good work with excellent dialog, many surprises, and characters that are well developed, and that while it is strongly political in nature, there is much in it that will resonate with people from all spectrums of opinion. Step back from where Priestly is trying lead the audience and you have a story about human nature and the harm people do to one another because they don’t understand or simply choose not to see the consequences their actions have on the lives of others. This is a problem for not only wealthy capitalists, but for many people when they have power over others. It could even be true of college professors or lower level management people.
This is the U.S. tour of the National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls, and the set from the original London West End theatre has been brought over. It is a first rate work that is a pleasure watch. At times I felt as if I were sitting in a London theatre while watching this incredibly talented troupe of actors plying their art. Costumes, lighting, and effects further enhanced the performances.
Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole is a combination of avenging angel and Ghost of Christmas yet to come, while Jeff Hamer in the role of family patriarch Arthur Brilling takes his character, who could have easily slipped into caricature, and fills him with depth and emotion.
Lianne Harvey’s Shelia Brilling at first appears to be uncaring, or rather naive, but then becomes a voice of reason and understanding. Eric Brilling, the alcoholic son played by Hamish Riddle, gains much depth as the play moves on, and his pain is deeply felt as the final scenes unfold.
Gerald Croft (Andrew Maclin), the future son in law, and Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanaugh), the family matriarch, struck me as the coldest of the bunch. Both appeared to be from the school that says if nobody sees you, you didn’t do anything wrong.
Not to be forgotten is Edna, the Birling’s maid. Played by Diana Payne-Myers, she has very little dialog but acts as witness to all that happens. While subtle, she is quite moving and plays an important role in the play.
Opening night was also Ms Payne-Myers 91st birthday. She has been performing the part for 22 years, I think she has it down pat.
Be neither turned off or on by the political bent of An Inspector Calls. It is excellent theatre and it would be a shame not to take it in. We are in such polarized political times, but that has always been true to some degree. The important thing is to be able to listen to one another no matter how much we may disagree. While you may or may not agree with J.B. Priestly’s political views, there is much common ground to be found in how we can improve our lives when it comes to treating others with kindness and respect.
One thing everyone can agree on is this is a superb production that should not be missed.
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets may be purchased online at www.artsemerson.org by phone at 617.824.8400, or in person at the box office.