FringeReview UK 2020
Stephen Daldry directs (Assistant Director Julian Webber), Ian McNeil designs the set lit by Rick Fisher with Stephen Warbeck’s film-noir music and Sound by Sebastian frost. Fight Director’s Terry King. Francis Campbell is the Ladies’ Maker, Michaela Clegg the men’s and Mark Costello the Inspector’s tailoring. Rachel Preston, Hand & Lock, Caroline Groves, Roger Watson Laces, Cornelia James (Gloves), Gabriele Firth (Dyer) and Sarah Ford (Decorations) assist variously.
‘And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’ Those devastating final words from Inspector Goole – lead protagonist of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 An Inspector Calls – can stir like few final words from any 20th century character. Both shattering and wonderful, they resonate down 75 years to stand us all in the dock. Rattle your jewellery. This play outlasts us all.
The brilliance of Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production lies in taking the 1912-set play – a year so many Priestley works start in – and dragging it into the Blitz in which it was written. Not updating, but lifting and dropping a piece of 1912 with its characters bang in the middle of an air raid which smokes and writhes around it like judgement. H.G. Wells – and Shaw – are mentioned. And there’s a hint of time-travel here.
The production’s speeded-up too. There’s only a faux-interval where the old interval was, and the play runs straight-through at one hour forty-five.
An air-raid siren. Two children play in front of the curtains; when it rises they try tuning a radio set that brings them the film-noir expressionism – and surreal house that opens up in Ian McNeil’s still astonishing set. Even if you’ve seen this production – and it’s the only one now – you might forget some of the extraordinary detail. It’s a production worth seeing twice too, thriller or not. Not really. It’s a moral tale and a socialist one at that.
When dry ice clears we find Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole playing with a young boy and a housekeeper (Emma Cater’s Edna) finally announcing him to the house, an Edwardian baroquerie with copper dome. Staying out on the cobbled desolate foreground, where everyone ends, Goole never enters this doll’s house on stilts with its little fire-escape, through which the first scene’s set muffled and within.
It’s where Jeffrey Harmer’s Arthur Birling burls pomp like a stomacher. Harmer’s bonhomie-to-bully alternates bullish confidence and Edwardian optimism with a bleak, furious defensiveness. Priestley’s Cumberland-cramped role is almost one-dimensional but this production allows Harmer a few surprisingly loving gestures towards his son. But nearly every hypocrisy’s exposed first.
The complacency of a well-to-do industrial magnate’s family celebrates the engagement of Birling’s daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to Alasdair Buchan’s Gerald Croft, son of his sometime rival.
There’s talk of profit, keeping down the price of labour, the nonsense of socialism. You get the feeling this 1912 raft is a bit like the Titanic, about to hit something. It’s a pity Birling’s smug reference to it: ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’ is muffled. And the assurance of no war with Germany.
It’s difficult to imagine this solid if diminutive house being anything other, or that at the end the Blitz seems to have caught up with the Birlings who after fireworks and shatterings, huddle in blankets like homeless Eastenders after the all-clear. The Inspector’s words – repeated by the enlightened Sheila – are being learned as predicted.
Rick Fisher’s lighting is as stark and full of smoking glooms as the 1940s movies this production references. Stephen Warbeck’s superb noirish score tends to underscore points with a touch of self-parody; Sebastian Frost’s sound might feel a notch high in this theatre.
The four Birlings and Gerald find themselves drawn in reluctantly to answer Goole’s queries about the death of Eva Smith, a bright, proud, ‘very pretty’ twenty-four-year-old who swallowed chemicals and dies in agony. ‘She wasn’t very pretty when I saw her’ remarks Goole, needling from the first like a grand inquisitor who seems to know the answers already as Sheila, quickest to acknowledge her guilt, realizes. Goole has Eva’s diary.
Brennan’s light-toned, ironical sometimes very-hands on Goole isn’t the seraphically remorseless Alistair Sims of the 1954 film. His alien Scottishness, verbal and physical mobility marks him as opposite in every way. But he’s just as steel-trapping. Brennan makes him more youthful too, more improvisatory in tone. His quicksilveriness makes him more unpredictable, except to Sheila. Goole also quietly sheds outer clothing, as if revealing layers of himself and his witnesses. When he dons them again – retrieving his hat from the boy (Oscar Croser-Neely) who’s held it all along – you feel authority and oracular prophesy descend.
Stages of guilt move from Birling himself dismissing Eva for leading a strike to Sheila’s shocking demand that dress assistant Eva be dismissed for smirking at her in the milliner’s, seen in a mirror; to Gerald who knew her as Daisy Renton. Gerald – already attached to Sheila – acts warm-heartedly rescuing Eva from a sexual predator, but inevitably responds to her own grateful warmth and need for love; and her equal knowledge it’s temporary.
Like all characters here, Buchan plays out more, loudly as the production dictates, so subtleties and compromises blur. Gerald’s both rational and complacent like Birling, keen to question Goole’s methods after clearing his head, slip back into his previous self. But he’s also warm-hearted. The more bullish side to Gerald is emphasized here. By the end you realize Sheila and Eric ‘the young being more impressionable’ as Goole claims are changed utterly. ‘He inspected us all right’ both admit at different points. Youngish Gerald, praised by the Inspector for lending Eva some happiness, you feel is in the balance.
Orrock brings warmth too as well as Edwardian poise and a clear, ringing rationale to her role, a biting truth-seeker. There’s throughout a latent fierceness to her Sheila, a way of standing and moving that stamps out someone who’ll find her own path. But tenderness for her brother and scuffed respect for Gerald is beautifully marked. Orrock’s more glamorous than some Sheilas – tradition has suggested that if a dress is wrong for her, Sheila might be dowdy, but Priestley doesn’t state this. Orrock renders her crumpled humility the more potent.
It’s only when Gerald temporarily leaves to clear his head and mourn that Eva’s catastrophic meetings unravel: with young Eric Birling (Ryan Saunders), a drunk, sensitive, vulnerable young man; later with Christine Kavanagh’s callous matriarch Sybil Birling.
In such a speaking-out production, Saunders’ Eric conveys a need for love, sensitivity, self-knowledge, ultimately decency. He doesn’t stick in the more hysterical side of his role (Terry King’s fight direction memorable here). There’s touching interplay between him and Orrock, sheltering in a blanket.
Kavanagh’s adamantine Sybil Birling is a role as whale-boned as the marvellous costumes (led by Francis Campbell) that adorn this production, with Sheila’s almost-wedding dress looking spectral amidst ruins. Kavanagh in regal burgundy manages some human touches, and her comic assumption of Edna’s chair always being available is one of Daldry’s quietly devastating touches – as is the red carpet rolled out onto cobbled ground.
There’s several more twists which if you don’t know the play will keep you guessing till the last moment.
Cater’s Edna is almost silent but increasingly makes her disdain for the Birlings felt in some neat chair-shifting. Annabel Grundy’s Girl, and Zachary Mitchell’s Older Boy add peripheral liveliness to the future looking back over 33 years. Eight supernumeries bring their own witness to bear
This is still an outstanding production we might take for granted. Seeing it again still shocks. Less tender than some conventional readings, it’s more truthful to the socialist Priestley than any before. Its relevance now burns back at us, as if in fire an blood and anguish we must learn it all again.