‘An Inspector Calls’
Through Dec. 23
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St. N.W.
Once a midcentury hit whodunit, J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” became increasingly relegated to summer stock reps as years passed and tastes turned to plays set outside of drawing rooms. But then in 1992, director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”) resuscitated Priestley’s piece with a brilliantly inventive staging, creating something more alive and relevant. This same National Theatre of Great Britain production is now kicking off its American tour at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The thriller takes place in fictional Brumley (“an industrial city in the north Midlands”) in the spring of 1912, about the same time as the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage. Outside it’s dark and rainy. Street urchins are splashing in the puddles found on a stretch of blitzkrieged cobblestone street. Inside what looks like an Edwardian doll’s house perched atop desolation, the prosperous, smug Birling family are celebrating the engagement of seemingly shallow daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to the imminently eligible Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), scion of a wealthy and socially connected family.
The beautifully dressed party includes the imperious, well-coifed yet unrefined Mrs. Birling (Christine Kavanagh) and her wastrel son Eric (Hamish Riddle). At the height of the celebration, Mr. Birling (Jeff Harmer), vulgarian to the bone, who regards the union of families as a business merger, toasts to “lower costs and higher wages.”
Just then, the cozy affair is interrupted by an Inspector Goole (pronounced “ghoul’) measuredly played with equal parts calm and force by Liam Brennan. He has arrived uninvited to pose queries about the death of Eva White, a pretty young working-class woman who has committed suicide by drinking strong disinfectant, a slow and torturous death.
White once worked at Mr. Burling’s factory, but was fired after asking for a living wage. Apparently she also had contact with other family members and Croft. Goole, a determined Scotsman, unimpressed by Burling and Croft’s wealth and position, sets forth on a determined line of questioning, aggressively so at times. And thus, the mystery unfolds.
Concerned with social and economic inequality in Britain, Priestley wrote the play over a week during the bombing of London. He set the action in 1912, a time when upper-class privilege, long-held social mores and stringent class structures would soon be challenged by the Great War. “An Inspector Calls” was first performed in the U.K. in 1946, the same year that the Labour Party won a landslide victory. Undoubtedly, an optimist time for an avid socialist like Priestley.
It’s the younger Birlings who change most dramatically. In the end, they empathize with the dead woman’s plight and tragic end. They come to understand just how human beings are connected in society at large, and not just through business, coming-out parties and peerages. The more senior characters and Croft uphold the old ways. They find it impossible to summon up a whit of compassion for Eva White, much less culpability in her demise.
Director Daldry rather ingeniously plays with time. The rich Birlings are mired visually and temperamentally in the Edwardian age, but Goole steps out of the mist dressed in fedora and trench coat — he’s the picture perfect 1940s film noir detective. The poor people in the street are also dressed circa World War II. Daldry’s design team creates a most eerie vibe with McNeil’s phenomenal set, Stephen Warbeck’s ominous music and Rick Fisher’s evocative lighting. The cast’s six actors play their parts large but never over the top.
Predictable and sometimes clunky, “An Inspector Calls” isn’t a masterpiece. Set traditionally in the confines of a well-appointed, bourgeois drawing room, it would drag endlessly and no doubt feel preachy. But Priestley has managed to make something different altogether, something that’s entertaining with a message, but not horribly didactic.