‘The Inspector Calls’ makes a welcome return
BOSTON – Who doesn’t love a classic Edwardian thriller?
The classics stand the test of time. Among them is “An Inspector Calls,” the J.B. Priestley play first produced in 1945 and now being performed by the National Theatre at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.
“Inspector” is a thriller of another sort: It has a decidedly political bent, and works not only as a complicated whodunit about the suicide of a young girl but as a a commentary on the corruption of the upper crust of British society, and its accompanying lack of awareness and concern for many of those beneath them.
This production directed by the acclaimed Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “the Crown”) is a much-honored thriller, winning multiple Tony, Olivier, and Drama Desk Awards.
The Daldry production first toured here in the 1990’s and returns at a time when its characters could be torn from the pages of newspapers or from TV newscasts.
There is a bombastic businessman and former lord mayor who is cautiously optimistic he will be included on the next list of royal honors. The businessman has a blubbering, feckless, drunken son named Eric.
It doesn’t hurt that it all comes packaged with sublime production values that will have you riveted to what’s going on on the stage of the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
A child begins the show, skipping onstage and peeking behind a curtain to eventually reveal the half-scale mansion designed by Ian MacNeill, which sits on piers high above to and to the rear of the stage; it will eventually open up to allow us to view the goings-on inside. There will also be a reckoning for the home later on in another unforgettable bit of imagery.
The area around the home is barren except for a damaged phone booth, and the children roaming about in the area. It it all adds up to a mystical feel, not quite grounded in reality.
The home and its inhabitants are often looking down upon servant Diana Payne-Myers, and the children, all considered beneath them. It is a time of celebration as businessman Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin) is becoming engaged to Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey), much to the delight of parents Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer), a wealthy businessman, and Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanagh); the family also includes son Eric Birling (Hamish Riddle), who is a tippler.
Then comes an inspector, tall, unflappable, neatly attired in a trenchcoat, but much more genteel and put-together than, say, Lt. Columbo. Lima Brennan’s Inspector Goole mixes a world-weariness of been-here-before with a bulldog instinct to get to the heart of the matter; he makes an effort to connect with the children before approaching the home.
“The Inspector” is at its best when it exposes the soft underbelly of Britain’s societal structure
The Inspector is forced to look up until the members of the family until the house splits open deign to come down to level to answer his questions .
There is the matter of the very recent suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith, who has swallowed disinfectant that provides for a gruesome end , and a possible connections that family members have to her.
It turns out the working-class young woman was once an employees of Arthur Birling at his factory before being fired for being involved in an unsuccessful strike.
We don’t want to spill the beans, but the Birleys and Croft prove no match for the inspector’s doggedness.
Priestley would like to deliver s clear message that we must take care of each other, tear down any walls that separate us, or there will be a price to be paid.
Besides the set, with its fog, rain, and dramatic home, the production values include the eerie, off-putting lighting by Rick Fisher; the dramatic music of Stephen Warneck and the sound design of Sebastian Frost to set the stage and create an atmosphere; and the spot-on costumes.
An ensemble of children and adults – a cross-section of different types of people – bears silent witness on stage to what is going on before them.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a British thriller without a couple of delicious plot twists that you probably won’t see coming.
Even if you’ve seen the “The Inspector” at work before, this production has so many things going for it that you’ll be charmed all over again.
ArtsEmerson presents the National Theatre of Britain’s production of J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls.” Directed by Stephen Daldry. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre through March 24. ArtsEmerson.org.