'An Inspector Calls': Theater Review

Mark Douet
Christine Kavanagh (left) and Lianne Harvey in 'An Inspector Calls'
Compelling melodrama, powerful themes, stunning visual artistry.
2/10/2019

Stephen Daldry's Tony and Olivier Award-winning revival takes its West Coast bow, featuring J.B. Priestley's trenchant social justice themes and Ian MacNeil's inspired production design.

If Stephen Daldry's landmark 1992 production of An Inspector Calls was hailed for its relevance amid an economic recession, 26 years later this colloquy pitting capitalism against socialism, wrapped in an Edwardian parlor mystery, has only become more germane. The London production won three Olivier Awards as well as two Tonys after it transferred to New York in 1994: for best revival of a play and the best director nod for Daldry. A 2011-12 U.K. revival tour and subsequent return London engagement have since followed, the latter starring Liam Brennan as the indomitable and ephemeral Inspector Goole, spoiler of a perfectly fine dinner party at the bourgeois Birling family home.

Brennan brings his unflappable gruff persistence to Los Angeles in this engaging throwback, with gob-smacking design by Ian MacNeil and inventive staging by Daldry. Even so, parlor plays are about as stage-bound as they come, despite MacNeil’s dynamic set perching a one-room house on the lip of a bomb crater in a fictional wasteland named Brumley, North Midlands, on an April night in 1912. Crammed into that house, the Birling family gathers to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), son of a business rival.

The evening is interrupted by Inspector Goole, who claims to be investigating the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. As Brennan makes his entrance, Daldry has him drift in from the aisles, a proxy for "the people," emerging from the audience and positioning himself outside Birling's home. There, an old servant (Diana Payne-Myers) busies herself while waifs play amid refuse.

With a no-nonsense manner, Goole literally and figuratively calls out Birling (Jeff Harmer), first to his elevated balcony, then down into the street. Indignant at the inquiry, the industrialist claims never to have heard of Smith, but a photo triggers his memory and he tells of a woman on his factory floor who organized workers to strike for a modest pay raise. He fired her, beginning a slow, downward spiral, continued by each of the family members as they reveal the various ways in which the wealthy casually exploit the poor for cheap labor, sex or the venting of everyday frustrations, recklessly causing misery and death.

For the Birlings, the ordeal is an eye-opening experience, one that literally splits their shell-like house in two, exposing them to the world. In Daldry's staging, they emerge from above and are brought low. A notion not lost on the director is the investigation’s mirror relationship with theater and art in general. Following a good meal, the Birlings are exposed to an empathy machine requiring them to look outside themselves, inspiring compassion for others.

Despite its numerous successes, Daldry's interpretation cannot escape anachronistic issues that prompted the play's fall from favor in the decades prior to the 1992 revival. The characters are one-dimensional and the plot moves forward not through action but through revelations of the past structured over five interviews. If that sounds a bit static, it is, despite the director's attempts to distract with erratic volume changes, occasional histrionics and often contrived physicality.

Ringmaster for the evening is Goole, a role which, after the play’s 1945 world premiere in Russia, was undertaken a year later by Ralph Richardson opposite a young Alec Guinness as the besotted Eric Birling in the original U.K. staging by Cedric Hardwicke. In the current production, Hamish Riddle plays the younger Birling, joining Brennan as the only West End holdover.

Primarily a Shakespearean actor in the U.K., Brennan appeared on Broadway in 2014 with Mark Rylance in the Globe's all-male double-bill Twelfth Night and Richard III. Here, he’s smart enough to assume centerstage without making the play about him, smoothly guiding the story forward, coaxing where he can and shouting where he must.

As Birling, Harmer is convincingly bombastic, frequently reminding others of his former position as Lord Mayor while advising his son to ignore the needs of strangers and look out only for himself. Birling’s daughter Sheila is prim, pretty and playful but ultimately a cloying rich bitch, with Harvey gracefully walking the line in between. As Gerald Croft, Macklin personifies white male privilege with a preening strut that sharply distinguishes him from Harmer’s paternal Birling. And veteran Christine Kavanagh delivers an imperious leonine matron, Sybil Birling, one who will not be swayed from the certainty of her own decency, no matter the facts.

When it originally opened, Daldry's production was noted for connecting the era in which the play was produced, 1945, with the one in which it’s set, 1912. But his figures wearing styles from the 1940s, including Goole, merely hint at that link. Unless you pay close attention to wardrobe, their visitation from the future barely registers when a ghostly chorus, including a World War II soldier, assembles behind Goole as he delivers his third act speech tying a thousand Eva Smiths to the anonymous masses trampled by greed and desire.

What does register are the play’s progressive social themes, which have sadly held universal truth for way too long. They were relevant in 1945, three years after Priestley co-founded the socialist Common Wealth Party, which paved the way for the postwar welfare state. They were relevant in 1992, when the U.K. was still reeling in the wake of Thatcherism. And they remain relevant today, as income gaps continue to widen and a majority of millennials polled choose socialism over capitalism.

In the end, through rationalization, the Birlings convince themselves of their own innocence, have a big laugh and shut themselves back up in their bubble of a house, illustrating a sadly common truth that Winston Churchill once stated about the thickness of some skulls: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Liam Brennan, Christine Kavanagh, Jeff Harmer, Andrew Macklin, Lianne Havey, Hamish Riddle, Diana Payne-Myers, Myles Bruno, Keylie Webster, Cooper Voy, Chris Barritt, Adam Collier, Chloe Orrock, Beth Tuckey
Playwright: J.B. Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
Set and costume designer: Ian MacNeil
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher Doshi
Sound designer: Sebastian Frost
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, The National Theatre of Great Britain