J.B. Priestley’s classic drama An Inspector Calls is once again touring the country. This time it is the award-winning Stephen Daldry production that has hit Buxton Opera House.
Set in the fictional industrial town of Brumley the play centres around the upper-class Birlings who are in the process of celebrating an engagement in the family. The head of the family is Arthur – a hard-headed businessman with designs on a knighthood – and he is delighted that his naïve daughter Sheila has announced her engagement to Gerald Croft – son of a titled family that own another major manufacturing concern in the town.
The family is completed by Arthur’s wife Sybil who is a rather haughty character and their younger son Eric who turns out to have a problem with drink.
The festivities are interrupted by a knock on the door. The unexpected caller announces himself as Inspector Goole and claims to be investigating the gruesome suicide of a young woman called Eva Smith. As the play develops it becomes clear that each and every one of the party-goers had played a part in Eva’s slide into despair.
The different reactions to how they had contributed to the tragedy allows more depth to be given to the characters. The parents are seen to be ice cold and unsympathetic to the problems faced by members of the lower-classes and remain in denial that they have done anything wrong while the children are able to portray a more kindly and considerate side to their persona. Rachel in particular becomes a much more rounded personality.
Meanwhile Gerald is the one member of the party who comes out of the mess with some dignity. The ease in which he can take with another woman may make him a totally unsuitable marriage partner but he did at least try to treat Eva well.
Given the fact that the play premiered in Russia seventy-five years ago, An Inspector Calls could be forgiven for being past its sell-by date. It is admittedly a little preachy in its approach – and is a vehicle for Priestley’s political views – but most of the issues raised remain relevant and thought-provoking. The contrast between the haves and have-nots, the hope presented by the world’s youth, the treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves – the audience member is forced to consider all of these concepts and more. Also, does the Inspector really exist or is he the conscience of the Birling family? And was Eva an actual person or an amalgam of all those wronged by the participants?
Liam Brennan is an excellent Inspector and he lights up the stage appearing at times to be all-knowing and at others to be struggling for words. Chloe Orrock is very convincing as Sheila while Christine Kavanagh plays her role as the aloof and rigid Sybil to perfection. There are also more than efficient performances from Jeffrey Harmer (Arthur), Alasdair Buchan (Gerald) and Ryan Saunders (Eric).
The drama is beautifully staged with the maid’s position on stage changing as her relationship with the Birlings alters and the superbly designed set has the house on stilts allowing for a dramatic episode that startles the audience. Costumes are also very appropriate with the finery of the Birlings contrasting with the street urchins and Goole wearing a demob suit as a symbol of the coming war that will destroy the Birling family’s place in society.
This is an excellent production that was very warmly greeted by a packed audience on Press Night and you should try to attend if possible. A very interesting evening is guaranteed.
An Inspector Calls has a running time of 1hour 45 minutes and continues until 23rd November. Contact 01298 72190 or buxtonoperahouse.org.uk for details.