An Inspector Calls: The Haunting of the Upper Class

A fog rolls in over the audience.  The thickness of the air is inescapable.  One gets a sense of feeling trapped.

No doubt the audience is made to feel the way the Birlings, a wealthy family, will soon feel under the interrogation of Inspector Goole.

His name is appropriate; the officer may very well have been called spectre or ghoul the way he flickered into existence at the house of the Birlings.  They never saw him coming.

The play, currently showing at Wyndham’s Theatre, carries a heavy moral message about social realism and class prejudice.

The continued success of JB Priestley’s play is due in part by the clever writing; especially the hard-hitting questions delivered well in the somewhat quirky movements of Nicholas Woodeson.

The other notable performance is by Sandra Duncan, who seems to embody the upper class of Victorian England in the role of Sybil Birling.  Duncan performed with grace and humour as the aristocratic matriarch of the Birling family. 

Marianne Oldham stole the show and demonstrated incredible range as Sheila Birling.  She was believable as the spoiled, rich girl and equally convincing as a reformed and regretful woman shocked by her parent’s insolence and her fiancé’s dishonesty.

The sound was rich and appropriately eerie, which helped to build suspense and drama.  The boy who kicked the radio was a nice touch, showcasing the preciseness of director Stephen Daldry. 

An added dimension

An interesting set design added another dimension, as the Birling house became a prop, a part of the set and even an actor in the play.

 It short-circuited and fell down in a heap, mimicking the movements of the disgraced Sybil Birling.  The state of the house became a metaphor for the state of the Birlings. 

When they felt themselves at the height of privilege, the house stood regal, protecting them from the filth outside. 

When they fell from that height, the house fell too, indeed as dramatically as they did – with an appropriate amount of sparks and smoke.

The play makes a statement about social realism and classism through the story of Eva Smith aka Daisy Renton, a murdered girl and the subject of Inspector Goole’s intense interrogation.

The dialogue, especially from Goole, is rich and poignant.  Eva Smith is an allegory for all the girls in the world who are oppressed by the upper class.

Broken ladder

Problems did arise.  Audiences could not help but laugh when Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft, played by Timothy Watson, tried to reconnect the ladder to the house (a sign that the Birlings were returning to their previous state of denial).  But the ladder failed to latch.

 Still, the actors handled set malfunction with enough professionalism and grace that the audience was forced to wonder if the error was indeed part of the play.

The story was compelling even in its simplicity. (Viewers are asked to imagine that one family could unknowingly cause so much distress to one girl.)

And even when this idea is turned on its head by Gerald Croft, who reminds the Birling family that they could not be sure which picture was shown to whom, the inevitable question arises: Who is Inspector Goole?  Is he the ghost of Christmas past?  An angel?  Is he their conscience?  Or better, is he our conscience summoned by Priestley to hold us all accountable for the sins of classism? 

Perhaps the reason why An Inspector Calls, which first performed in 1945, stands the test of time is that in dealing with an issue that is still alive and well, it seeks to do what other important playwrights like Brecht have been praised for.  The play asks its audience to think beyond the characters and to imagine that they are being interrogated as well.

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