january 2017 | Volume 151
This is what drawing room drama looks like when written by a socialist. J. B. Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls at the end of the Second World War and set it in 1912, just before the First. It’s a play about moral responsibility and community, values you wouldn’t think would need reinforcing after two wars and the Depression. But these values, Priestley obviously felt, were still sorely lacking in the British ruling class.
The play has remained popular in London ever since a spectacular 1992 National Theatre revival, which also played for over a year on Broadway. William B. Davis’ straight ahead, very well acted Equity Co-op production at Jericho Arts Centre lets us see exactly what Priestley was up to, and reminds us that the ills he diagnosed in England 70 years ago are with us still in our own troubled corner of paradise.
The play opens on a scene right out of Noel Coward: men in tuxedos and women in gowns drinking port while a maidservant (Lesli Brownlee) scurries around the prosperous drawing room. Soon to be knighted self-described “practical businessman” Arthur Birling (Keith Martin Gordey) with wife Sybil (Sarah Arnold) and heavy-drinking son Eric (Chris Walters) have gathered to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila (Julie Lynn Mortensen) to Gerald Croft (Jordon Navratil), son of another local merchant-prince.
All might seem right with the world but for the shit-brown colour and cracks in the walls of John R. Taylor’s cleverly handsome set, and Arthur’s assurances that the talk of war is just talk. Civilized nations can’t possibly go to war in a world made prosperous by hard-nosed businessmen like him, he insists, whose duty is “to look after himself and his family.” As evidence that this is the age of progress and optimism, he cites the soon-to-be launched “unsinkable” ocean liner Titanic.
Immediately upon those heavily ironic notes of hubris comes the ominous ringing of the doorbell. It’s Inspector Goole (John Prowse), a new man at the local constabulary, there to discuss the particularly grisly suicide of a young working woman. What could that unfortunate incident possibly have to do with any of us, they wonder. Goole systematically makes them each understand their individual responsibility for the tragedy. When he gets aggressive, Arthur and Sybil object in the rhetoric of their class: “impertinent,” “offensive,” “a girl of that sort.” How can respectable people like them possibly be associated with criminal behavior? But Goole is having none of it. There’s not so much difference, he drily replies, between respectable people and criminals.
Goole’s revelations split the family, with some accepting responsibility and others firmly resisting. There are even suggestions that Goole is a fraud and the suicide a composite of many women (as if that would make things any better). Priestley adds a twist at the end that throws the play’s entire genre into doubt – but reinforces his theme of individual and collective responsibility.
The acting is fine right across the board in this excellent production, although Mortensen’s Sheila stood out for me – partly, perhaps, because Sheila and Eric (in a very strong portrayal by Walters) are the characters most admirably affected by the realization of what they’ve done. Director Davis adds a homeless beggar to the cast (Brownlee) to help us see the parallels to our own time and place, but the message is clear in any case. We’re all connected, in ways of which we’re not even always aware.
Happy New Year.
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