An Inspector Calls, Cambridge Arts Theatre, 14th May 2009.
Having seen this production when I was studying ‘An Inspector Calls’ for GCSE (which, bizarrely, didn’t destroy it for me), I was curious to see it again with the eyes of a more experienced and jaded theatregoer. I never experienced the initial joy of seeing the play unfold without knowing what was going to happen (a rare pleasure – I read too much), but the stunning set was surprising enough. This is exactly the same Stephen Daldry production, but transported from the rather grand Olivier stage to the much smaller Arts Theatre. The imposing house was rather less impressive from the back row of the stalls, where the underside of the circle cut off the top third, and it all looked slightly cramped. This should not detract from what was a solid production, though.
The Birling family were all good, especially Eric (Robin Whiting), who portrayed young and helpless and disgusted with himself very well. The wild disarray of his costume by the end of the play reflected the disarray of his mental state, and his self-loathing was deep without being worthy. Sheila (Marianne Oldham) came across earnestly and charted the progression from giggly naïf to self-loathing adult excellently. Mr Birling (David Roper) had just the right mixture of bombast and fragility. He was clearly terrified of a scandal, and yet was still a swaggering bully both within his family and in his professional life. There was a clear sense of being nouveau riche and very aware of it – never more so than when the cut-glass tones of his rather better off wife prompted him to do or say something he should have done without prompting. Mrs Birling (Sandra Duncan) was intensely dislikeable, which I mean as a complement. However, it did make it harder to sympathise with her pitiful, snivelling downfall towards the end, with dishevelled hair and dress covered with a brown blanket. Gerald (Alisdair Simpson) was a trifle nondescript, which I think is as much a fault of the play as the actor. He isn’t given much to go on in terms of dialogue, and his part in Eva/Daisy’s death is arguably the smallest, so there is less room for emotional turmoil and depth to be explored.
In spite of the restricted view, I adored the set. Its use of levels, with the upper classes forced to come down to Inspector Goole’s level, is inspired, and the metaphor remains subtle enough to only improve Priestley’s dismemberment of upper-middle-class airs and graces. Edna was a superb, constant embarrassing presence for the Birlings, and managed to convey a huge amount with the smallest of gestures. The fall of the house of Birling was beautifully done (spoiler alert), and there was a very clever ‘picking up the pieces’ scene when the senior Birlings and Gerald gather up their shattered self-belief and sense of humour while crunching across shards of their crockery and glassware
I was not overly impressed with the actual inspector. Although he had a good presence for a small man, and used his body and physicality to intimidate and probe, I found his diction very odd. He was presumably directed to do so, but he emphasised odd words in a phrase and put in overly long and rather bizarrely timed pauses – not leading to increased dramatic effect, unless the desired effect was bewilderment. The script is strong enough, however, that the relentless hounding of the Birlings and search for the truth overrode any small niggles. It is easy to see why this production has run and run.