It’s always a challenge to take on a classic, but you wouldn’t know it from watching St Hilda’s College Drama Society’s charged rendition of J.B. Priestley’s ‘drawing room’ classic, An Inspector Calls. Centering on the well-to-do Birling family as they gather to celebrate their daughter’s engagement, the play charts the unwelcome arrival of a police inspector at their home, his oddly prescient enquiry into their role in a young woman’s suicide, and the chaos that ensues as he methodically peels back the Birling’s smug façade, forcing them to confront the ugly consequences of their actions and turning their relationships with each other – and their very lives – upside down. It’s a sharp, engrossing play full of historical irony and rumbling political undertones, and, most importantly, one that’s done full justice by this production – an interpretation that largely avoids the pitfalls of static speechifying or canned melodrama, embraces the devilish twists and turns of the narrative, and breathes life into the flawed characters at the heart of the tale.
This success is in large part due to the acting on display. As Arthur Birling – the proselytising patriarch of the Birling household –, Nick Bowman is in fine form, skillfully expressing his character’s conceited social climber sensibilities, flashes of selfish panic, and outbursts of stentorian rage. Kaiya Stone is similarly impressive in the role of Arthur’s wife Sybil; unrepentantly haughty and stilted, she positively exudes the classist self-righteousness that bears the brunt of the plays’ criticism. Representing the ‘younger generation’, Raphaelle Vallet manages to adeptly tap the burgeoning sensitivity and pained remorse of the Birling’s daughter Sheila, and Felix Lehane the raw, nervous energy of their troubled son Eric, both of whom are drawn into conflict with their parents as the play progresses. Richard Grumitt also stands out as Sheila’s betrothed, Gerald; tasked with embodying what is arguably the play’s most complex character, he gives a nuanced performance – by turns ingratiating, confident, and contemplative – that’s suitably hard to pin down. The titular Inspector, meanwhile, is lent an ethereal calm by Anna Appleby, who captures the quiet authority of the part even if her delivery occasionally strays too close to (admittedly stylistically intriguing) monotony.
The talents of the cast are all the more crucial given that the play – despite its thematic pretenses – really works more as a character study, and thus it is the interactions between the Birlings that really command our attention. In constant flux, these are a delight to behold, especially as the intrigue deepens and the emerging confessions and sordid revelations lead to bitter accusations, disintegrating loyalties, and internecine conflict.
The production’s technical aspects also work to good effect, accentuating rather than distracting from the all-important performances. The elegant furniture populating the stage, for instance, not only provides a naturalistic and characterful three-dimensional landscape (well utilised by the dynamic blocking) for the action to unfold in, but also acts as a powerful reminder of the Birling’s socioeconomic standing (and perhaps a metaphor for their self-satisfied mental furniture) throughout the play. Other touches, like the howling wind heard each time the front door is opened and the sickly lighting, serve to further enrich the atmosphere of the piece, adding to the growing sense of unease and foreboding.
In closing, An Inspector Calls is a well-staged, well-acted and overall well-executed production, one whose slow-burning nature earns a dramatic pay-off (the last 20 minutes are thrilling), and whose focus on the interpersonal relations of its characters allows Priestley’s heavy-handed musings on guilt, compassion, and social responsibility to resonate without choking the proceedings. Dynamic and thought provoking, it succeeds on multiple levels: as a chilling exploration of the ramifications of our actions, as a hermetic character study, and as a thoroughly entertaining piece of theatre.
PHOTO / An Inspector Calls