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The Novello Theatre presents


An Inspector Calls



Written by J.B. Priestley


Directed by Stephen Daldry


Designer:  Ian MacNeil


Lighting Designer:  Rick Fisher


Music:  Stephen Warbeck


22 Sept - 14 Nov 09






ary Couzens

A review by Chad Armitstead for EXTRA! EXTRA!


An Inspector Calls suffers from the curse of being popular.  Tell anyone who did their GCSEs you’re going to see a production of it and you may very well get some kind of a withering retort like ‘if it’s a good production, it’s meant to be very good.’  Like any show that becomes a regional repertory staple, any production of the show must first conquer the snobbery of the heretofore unimpressed.   Director Stephen Daldry himself nearly succumbed to a similar scepticism when Derek Nicholls (artistic director at the York Theatre Royal in 1989) first approached him about the show.  Twenty years and millions of pounds later, it’s a safe bet he’s no longer a sceptic. 

Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls is a searing expressionistic re-imagination of the timeless thriller.  It has mesmerized audiences from New York to Australia.  Daldry thrusts the audience into a disquieting world as persuasively vivid, disconcerting and inescapable as a nightmare.

For those who have eluded the reach of GCSEs, the story centres on the Birling family and their daughter’s fiancé Gerald Croft.  The Birlings and Crofts are powerful, if competing manufacturing families.  On this particular evening, the Birlings are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Marianne Oldham) to Mr. Croft (Timothy Watson) and its potential profitability for both families.  Interrupting their merriment, an imposing and insistent Inspector Goole (Nicholas Woodeson) arrives to investigate the family’s possible implication in the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith, who used to work for Arthur Birling (David Roper).  As the evening progresses, Inspector Goole traces the web the family has woven around the unfortunate girl. 

I must give a disclaimer here.  This show might be best enjoyed if it takes one by complete surprise.  I will of course describe the evening here for the curious or contemplating, stopping short of any spectacle spoilers.  But there will be those who’ve decided to see the show already and who never peek at their gifts before the holidays.  The latter may wish to skip to the last paragraph of the review and allow Inspector Goole to take them as much by surprise as he does the Birlings.  Snoops, read on.

Decaying floorboards slope down to a dilapidated telephone booth at the feet of the filthy-looking curtain at the Novello Theatre.  On the same level as the audience in the stalls, the booth gives the unsettling feeling that the Birling’s world is our own. 

The lights go down.  A child emerges.  He finds a disused radio and bangs on it.  The haunting strains of film noir horror music swell.  The child tries to lift the curtain to see into the dark world beyond it and fails.  He persists.  Finally, the curtain begins to rise.  Its fringes are silhouetted like teeth in the gaping jaws of a monster against glowing fog and falling rain.  Audience members nudge the people next to them as if they’re about to descend the first slope of a rollercoaster, the anticipation almost making them wish the curtain would close again. 

Once the curtain is open, an out-of-scale mansion on stilts evokes the claustrophobia of a bad dream, its ceilings barely taller than its occupants.  As the evening progresses, the house, decked in 1912 middle-upper class décor, springs open.  Inspector Goole arrives.  He demands to question the Birllings.  The family descends to the streets of 1945 to be questioned. 

The disparate times are conceptions and creations of Daldry, designer Ian MacNeil and lighting designer Rick Fisher.  The team have taken a cue from Peter Brook, who suggests that you can set a play in one of three powerful times—when it was written, when it was set, and today.  Daldry and company refuse to settle for just one, using all three.  The house, the street and Goole’s direct address of the audience point out the unchecked capitalism of 1912, the 1945 creation of the Welfare State and the lingering effects of both on the here and now, respectively.  Fisher ingeniously lights Goole’s address to the audience in unforgiving daylight, marking a visual break in tone from the rest of the show, placing Goole in the here and now, and invoking the pitiless scrutiny of history that is made possible when it is illuminated by hindsight. 

A brilliant cast brings the world the designers have created to life.

Nicholas Woodeson embodies the precision and focus of a bird of prey.  With the Birlings as his quarry, Woodeson’s fiery Goole successively pins each of them down with unrelenting intensity and acute intuition.   Sandra Duncan imposes a commanding presence and has honed her comic timing to the head of a pin as the rigid Sybil Birling. 

Though many superb actors with star power have populated the show throughout its lengthy travels (since 1992), Daldry must be credited with the fact that the production itself remains the main draw.  He states himself that he has directed the show ‘to within an inch of its life,’ keeping things as granular and inflexions consistent as he rehearses new casts.  Ignoring the two intervals suggested by the text, Daldry’s taut production draws the audience deep into the unrelenting claustrophobia of Inspector Goole’s interrogation.  The result is a show that consistently delivers both on the boards and in the box office.

An Inspector Calls’ spectacle certainly impresses—the house feels more like a possessed member of the cast than a set piece.  But the show also achieves the kind of urgent appeal for social justice you might expect more from a cramped fringe theatre than from the West End.  Daldry and company lend the play a new relevance that asks you to consider your own complicity in the plight of those around you.  Long after you leave the Novello Theatre, Goole’s question will echo in your mind.  ‘Do you recognize this girl?’  And you will worry that you might.



22 September-14 November

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