An Inspector Calls gets solid treatment at Perth

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

There’s no denying the polemic in J.B. Priestley’s 1944 classic, An Inspector Calls. And it’s not played down in the Perth Classic Theatre Festival’s excellent production. That’s evident from the compelling moment near the end when actor William Vickers, excellent as the play’s mysterious Inspector Goole, confronts the audience and warns of the “fire and blood and anguish” that will descend on society if human beings fail to recognize their collective responsibilities to each other.

The play wears its socialist colours proudly, as did its author throughout a remarkably long career. And when Britain’s National Theatre unveiled a historic revival in 1992, the notes in the printed program took unflinching aim at Margaret Thatcher’s notorious assertion that “there is no such thing as society” and therefore no case to be made for shared human concerns.

So there is a social and political context for this play, and Priestley is scarcely subtle in asserting it. Yet William Vickers takes that prophetic speech and invests it with such moral passion that you end up not caring whether or not you’re being preached at.

But there’s a further reason we’ve become so receptive to what the inspector has to say. An Inspector Calls also happens to be a cunningly crafted thriller. Yes, it is also a stinging indictment of class and privilege in 1912 England. And yes, it implies that nothing much has changed over the ensuing decades. But it also keeps the audience eagerly wondering what will happen next once this inspector comes calling at a wealthy, upper-class home, armed with questions concerning the agonizing suicide a few hours earlier of a young working-class woman.

Director Laurel Smith orchestrates the suspense adroitly. And she ensures that the evening’s final seconds will administer a jolt. But she also recognizes that this is a character-driven piece, as well as a portrait of a particular society in which privilege and entitlement are a given.

To be sure, there’s a bit of creakiness in the opening scene introducing us to an engagement party in the dining room of wealthy industrialist Arthur Birling and his family. The exposition here is necessary in order to establish context for what comes later, yet it can be tiresome. However, this Perth production largely overcomes these pitfalls by ensuring we start being engaged — even appalled — by the characters and the culture they represent. The occasion for the gathering is the engagement of the Birling daughter, Sheila, to the aristocratic Gerald Croft, and although it may seem to be a love match made in heaven, it is also clearly of dynastic advantage to both families.

But in the midst of the celebration, we have the arrival of Inspector Goole. He’s investigating the tragic death of this young woman, and eventually it becomes evident that everyone present has had a role to play in the chain of events leading to her suicide. Is this contrivance on Priestley’s part? Of course. Does that matter? No — provided a production manages the tricky feat of attaching a naturalistic style to what is in essence a mythic parable. This the people at Perth do.

As the inspector, William Vickers is a most unlikely avenging angel — and that is the strength of his performance. Precise, methodical, somewhat dry in demeanour until he starts losing patience with this evasive household, Vickers repeatedly demonstrates the virtues of understatement. Furthermore, there is something mysterious about Inspector Goole — and if he doesn’t exactly convey menace in his encounter with this smug and complacent household, he certainly brings unease, and that’s an emotion that can be as unsettling as outright fear.

But the pivotal role of the inspector can’t work without a responsive cast. Greg Campbell is outstanding as the self-satisfied, self-preening Arthur Birling, boasting of his ability to use the right connections to gain a knighthood, and utterly callous when it comes to the needs of the workers in his employ. There’s a splendidly gowned Elana Post, seeping poison as his cruelly self-righteous wife. Anna Burkholder convinces as daughter Sheila, a young woman forced to endure the ravages of guilt, and Fraser Elsdon exudes a haughty aura of privilege as the fiance with his own secrets to conceal. Finally, there is Sean Jacklin, very good as the self-loathing, drunken son of the family.

As is common with Perth, this is a visually handsome production. The positioning of the dining room table creates some problems with sight lines, but Lois Richardson has provided a splendid set. Renate Seiler’s costumes are terrific, attentive to detail right down to the inspector’s watch chain. Lighting designer Wesley McKenzie makes his own surprise contribution to the evening’s impact. In brief another winner from Perth.

An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley

Perth Classic Theatre Festival to Sept. 11.

Director Laurel Smith

Set: Lois Richardson

Lighting: Wesley McKenzie

Sound: Matthew Behrens

Costumes: Renate Seiler

Cast:

Arthur Birling………………………………..Greg Campbell

Gerald Croft………………………………….Fraser Elsdon

Sheila Birling………………………………..Anna Burkholder

Sybil Birling…………………………………Elana Post

Edna…………………………………………Breanna Critchley

Eric Birling………………………………….Sean Jacklin

Inspector Goole……………………………..William Vickers


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