Social justice and class inequality are the pivotal themes of an eye-popping and powerful revival of An Inspector Calls, currently on tour in the U.S. The production is under the talented hand of director Stephen Daldry (The Crown, Billy Elliot The Musical), who proposed J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play to the National Theatre back in the early 1990s. Seeing the play at Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company this season provided a remarkable firsthand view at why the revival has been so popular in its 26-year run.
An Inspector Calls is set simultaneously in three time periods: 1912, postwar society, and the modern day. The Edwardian era predominates, with scenery and costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Ian MacNeil (Billy Elliot The Musical) for the household of the Birling family. The centerpiece of the set, in fact, is an actual house that takes up about one third of the stage. Within this sort of dollhouse, one can just make out the Birlings through the windows, at a dinner party to celebrate Sheila’s (Lianne Harvey) engagement to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin).
Against this backdrop, Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives to investigate the family’s connections to Eva Smith, a former employee who has committed suicide. The well-to-do Birling house is elevated a few feet above the stage, while children, Edna the housekeeper (Diana Payne-Myers), and Goole stand outside of the house below.
Not only does the house create a dynamic juxtaposition of British classes, it may be viewed as the collective state of mind of the rich Birlings. Goole’s insistence on meeting with the Birlings is an outright intrusion into their comfortable haven, accentuated visually as the house finally opens up to reveal the dining room. Brennan portrays a very intriguing inspector, infusing his character with the right mix of confidence, empathy, fearlessness, and outrage as the drama unfolds.
Birling family members eventually descend from the house, shortly before each major revelation unfolds regarding their ill treatment of Smith. Lianne Harvey and Hamish Riddle superbly play the roles of spoiled offspring Sheila and Eric. They first take Goole’s questioning as a joke, before realizing the full impact of their actions – Sheila insisting that Smith be fired from a job, Eric being a downright cad. Jeff Harmer and Christine Kavanagh delivered crisp performances as the parents Mr. and Mrs. Birling, stubbornly defending their position that they had no role in Smith’s suicide. Kavanagh in particular shines, haughtily twirling at the door and gliding across the stage in her sequined red dress.
Daldry’s staging serves not only to tear down the Birlings’ barriers, but also to come into the audience’s space. Brennan innocuously walks through a row in the orchestra as part of Goole’s entrance. It seems odd at first that instead of facing toward the dining room, sometimes he would look out toward the audience while answering questions. Later, he appears in the balcony during Sheila’s quarrel with Gerald, cuing one of the street children to turn the music from the film Vertigo on and off. Eventually, the theatre lights above the audience turn on as Inspector Goole delivers his final address.
The lighting by Rick Fisher, music by Stephen Warbeck, and sound by Sebastian Frost richly evoke certain tones and bygone eras. Air raid sirens fill the theatre bringing to mind the World Wars, tying in with Goole’s later warning of “blood and anguish” to the far end of the spectrum if people don’t look out for others in society. The strong lighting behind Brennan at another part of the play casts a brilliant shadow, a great tribute to film noir and detective dramas.
When the staircase is attached to the bottom of the house, it slams with a sharp and jarring clang as if invading the peace of the Birling household. The string instruments and the brief tidbit of Vertigo in the music give the play a Hitchcockian tone at times, escalating the suspense and reinforcing how not everything is as it seems. Sound is also key in underscoring particular aspects about characters. Mrs. Birling’s finely sequined dress, in which she glides silently across the cobblestones, later makes grating and uncomfortable noises when she moves to the wood at the very front of the stage.
An Inspector Calls is an amazing and thrilling play. Daldry’s confident hand weaves all the elements and details together so artfully as to deliver humor, honesty, suspense, and even a touch of horror. The play delights and asks important questions. It provides lessons about social responsibility that continue to be relevant today, whether it’s reasonable wages, being charitable to folks asking for help, or international affairs such as Brexit and immigration. Though the play is from the 1940s, one can even pull out a bit of #metoo from Goole’s lectures to Croft and Eric on how they treated Ms. Smith.
After wrapping up at the Shakespeare Theatre Company on December 23, An Inspector Calls continues on its U.S. tour. For information about tour dates and to obtain tickets, visit the production’s website.