Review: “An Inspector Calls”

Hamish Riddle (Eric Birling, center), Christine Kavanagh (Sybil Birling), and the company of The National Theatre of Great Britain’s landmark production of JB Priestley’s classic thriller “An Inspector Calls.” (Photo by Mark Douet)


Where: Chicago
Shakespeare Theater,
The Yard, Navy Pier
When: through March 10
Tickets: $40-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600

Theater Critic

When the touring production of Stephen Daldry’s ground-breaking 1992 staging of JB Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” for the National Theatre of Great Britain came to Chicago years ago, I didn’t really get it.

I mean, I understood intellectually that Daldry was conflating the setting of the thriller in 1912 with when it was written in the wake of World War II to heighten the disastrous effects of an unfair class system and unchecked capitalism, but the show didn’t grab me emotionally.

The touring version at Chicago Shakepeare’s The Yard for a short run is much more powerful, though I’m not sure why. It may be that the current social and political climate makes Priestley’s message – we are all responsible for each other – more timely than ever or simply that I was sitting closer to the stage. Or maybe the surrealistic acting style and physical staging mesh better than before. There’s definitely nothing subtle about it, and the moralizing is as in-your-face as any agitprop theater.

Ian MacNeil’s scenic design, enhanced by Rick Fisher’s lighting, made the most dramatic splash originally—and still does. A multistory-looking dollhouse of a mansion teeters atop a bomb crater in murky post-apocalyptic surroundings with a tattered red phone booth incongruously in one corner and a miniature building, lighted from within, upstage. When things fall apart, the house does, too, literally tilting at a dangerous angle sending the furnishings flying.

MacNeil also designed the costumes, which range from the upper middle-class family’s formal Edwardian attire to the dowdy duds of the working-class folks (and one soldier) lurking in the shadows, not to mention the inspector’s neat 1940s pinstripe suit, raincoat, and fedora, clues there is something “off” about him.

From the opening air raid siren (sound design by Sebastian Frost) to the Hitchcockian music (by Stephen Warbeck), the aural landscape is as potent as the visual. The performance – presented without an intermission rather than as the original’s three acts – begins with a street urchin running on stage and hiding from the noise in the red-velvet curtain.

When Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives, and the maid Edna (Diana Payne-Myers), who spends much of the evening scurrying around cleaning up the mess, announces him, the Birlings are inside their manse celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), the son of a manufacturing rival to Sheila’s industrialist father Arthur (Jeff Harmer).

While Arthur, an advocate of self-reliance who views the impending marriage as a business merger, is very proud of having been mayor and magistrate of the fictional town of Brumley, his wife Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) is ultra-conscious of her social standing and quick to disapprove of others. Their son Eric (Hamish Riddle) has problems his parents don’t know about but are crucial to what happens.

Inspector Poole, who starts with a measured Scottish accent but eventually becomes furious about family members’ hypocrisy and denials, explains that he’s investigating the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith who drank a strong disinfectant. He implies she left a diary naming names. The Birlings and Croft at first deny knowing her or even who she was, but as the Inspector questions them one-by-one, showing a few a photo, they realize the roles they played in her death.

The first blow was when Arthur dismissed her from one of his factories 18 months earlier after she took part in an abortive strike for higher wages. She got a job in a shop, but Sheila spitefully insisted she be fired simply for the way she looked at her trying on a dress. Then Eva changed her name to Daisy Renton, and Gerald met her hanging out at the Palace Bar. Saying he felt sorry for her, gave her money and made her his mistress until he ended the affair. Eric’s relationship with the pretty young woman had even more dire consequences and resulted in her going to Sybil’s charitable organization for help—and Sybil self-righteously refusing her.

The way these privileged people react to what they’ve done is as significant as their wrongdoing. The older generation is intransigent, with Sybil most virulent of all about having done nothing wrong, even though her insistence comes at great personal cost. Arthur, whose main concern has been potential scandal, vehemently continues to claim that Eva’s death was not his fault and lashes out at Inspector Poole for being rude.

Gerald, who arguably cared for Daisy and did her the least harm, is moved by her death, but after a walk to clear his head, is quick to seize on the idea that the Inspector wasn’t who he said he was and maybe no one died at all. Like Arthur and Sybil, he’s eager to forget anything ever happened and go back to the way things were before.

Eric, an alcoholic, is devastated but incapable of doing much of anything. Only Sheila seems to be transformed by the experience and swears never to behave so badly again. At one point, she even appeals directly to the audience, the peak of the self-conscious presentational acting that’s excellent all around.

But is Sheila’s remorse enough to stave off impending doom? Brennan’s Inspector Poole keeps looking at his watch and saying that time is running out. Daldry’s production strongly suggests that it will again.