On Thursday 16th October 2015 I went to the Regent Theatre in Hanley to watch a touring production of J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls. Alas by the end of it I was somewhat confused, a bit angry and didn’t really care very much about the crux of the story. There seemed to be so much socio/political subtext going on through the stage production, that (for me) the heart and essence of the text was lost!
I have never read J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls nor can I recall seeing the 1954 Alastair Sim film either. But I did see a stage production ten years ago and although the details are gone, I still remember the “wow what an ending to the story” feeling. Presumably the modern style of interpretation was there in my first viewing, but at the time I knew nothing at all about the context of An Inspector Calls. Armed with new knowledge and the memory of a superb traditional BBC TV adaptation from a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the play with a fresh perspective. Sadly from the start all I could do was see “ticking boxes” to fulfil several bits of criteria deemed essential for the underlying sub-text.
It began with WWII air-raid sirens and a little boy listening to a radio, so I thought that the setting was going to be in the 1940s. When the curtain finally lifted and the house interior/occupants dress was revealed, it was obviously 1912 the year the play was set in. As the drama progressed and the WWII motifs remained I was utterly baffled, especially as the sirens, radio music and sounds of bombing at times drowned out the actors voices, as they did not use any means of amplification. Particularly bad was the dialogue at the beginning when the Birling party were inside their enclosed “Wendy house mansion on stilts”. I immediately thought they would have to open up the set for anyone to be able to hear properly. In my usual “cheap seat” at the back of the stalls, at times I’ve had to concentrate hard to follow a story, as the Regent does not have the best of acoustics. But with the actors having no amplification and the type of stage setting involved I must have lost about 20% of the dialogue.
So with different eras seemingly being juxtaposed together I couldn’t help but think “that shouldn’t be there” far too many times. The Birling’s interior telephone became an outdoor telephone box (I don’t think available in 1912), the dining room interrogation found itself on the hard urban streets of a bombed out city, the WWII radio had no place in a 1912 parlour. The manner of Inspector Goole reminded me of Jack Regan in “The Sweeney”, especially when he rolled up his shirt sleeves and threw his jacket into the gutter and shouted most of the time. Eric Birling the errant son running on with his shirt-tails hanging out and a bit wild eyed made me think of someone coming out of a night-club, not a man having had too much to drink at a home dinner party. And the violence shown between son/mother and father/son reminded me of episodes of “Dallas”! Obviously my mind wandered from the plot quite often, partly as a way of trying to comprehend what I was seeing but mainly because I felt totally disengaged from the story. When I get into a play I almost become part of it and really care deeply about the characters. But this time I just felt remote from the whole thing, perhaps because this modern adaptation was trying too hard to be all things to all people!
Much discussion took place with my husband Rob afterwards in the pub and the “era-mix” caused great confusion. From Google we discovered that Priestley wrote the play in 1945 but the story was set in April 1912, so it was a kind of vague though unsatisfactory explanation why both decades prevailed on stage. From the program there was a hinted suggestion that the rejection of Churchill in the polls after WWII could have been reflected in Priestley’s play. But I think that’s reading too much into that, but I could see that the class barriers that began to be questioned during the First World War were even more battered (though not dead) by the end of the Second World War.
I was far more interested to discover the play was set in APRIL of 1912 the same month as the Titanic disaster. The irony of that was not lost on me at all, the rich inhabiting the top decks having a better chance of survival than the poor on lower decks. And the gentry mantra of “women and children” must be on a life raft first, does not equate with pregnant Eva Smith/Daisy Renton being cast aside and effectively killed by the same upper class because no one threw her a life belt. It is also the era of the suffragette movement and Eva/Daisy initially fell on hard times through asking for a pay rise and going on strike. Her hard difficult struggle to make ends meet is a direct reflection of the harsh treatment by the authorities of women fighting for more equality. So when patriarch Arthur Birling complains vociferously at the harsh/less reverential questioning directed by the Inspector toward the Birling women, the irony and hypocrisy of the situation is all too evident.
The “Wendy house mansion on stilts” perfectly emphasised both the shaky ground the upper-class society was built upon in 1912 and visually separated the comfortable elite from the desperate majority. Inspector Goole’s line of questioning unravelled the fabric that kept the Birling facade intact and the First World War helped shake the foundations as well. When an onstage explosion literally brought the house down, I guess it was a metaphorical representation of an equalling in society. Both the mother and son at one point were lying in the gutter apparently broken by their deeds. Yet when it looks like no suicide has been made by Eva/Daisy, the audience saw Mrs Sybil Birling rising slowly then becoming more assured in her manner. The old-world order had not been upset after all, which was a call for celebration. Only the young Birlings’ Eric and Sheila seemed traumatised by the whole affair and felt any kind of remorse for their actions. They realised whether Eva/Daisy had committed suicide or not, all of them at the dinner party were culpable for their actions in bringing about her predicament. The ending of course finds Arthur Birling being informed that a death has now occurred and the police will be arriving to question them. Everything they had been told was a prediction of what would happen that night.
I discerned from my program a notion that only a modern innovative rendition of An Inspector Calls could bring the themes from the story into the present day. A traditional portrayal of the play could only make the Birling family seem like a relic from a bygone era, something from the history books. I disagree completely with this assumption having seen the recent BBC TV adaptation, which was excellent. It took place in a resplendent Georgian dining room with characters acting perfectly in dress, manner and behaviour of the times. The Inspector Goole of this version was quietly forceful with a beautifully measured manner and a pall of sadness about him. To me he was utterly believable, especially as he made me think of the narrator in the film The Book Thief, who was the voice of death like Goole himself. Being set properly in the context of 1912 magnifies the heart and soul of the play; it does not detract from it. The Titanic disaster, Suffragette movement, World War One and the ideals/wrongs of that time nourish and nurture the story. For me the traditional setting reinforced the themes from the play and I had tears in my eyes at the end of the TV drama. Alas I was a bit angry and rather cross having watched the stage production of An Inspector Calls. I’m sorry to say the themes that transcend the generations doesn’t work as a smorgasbord stage setting.