Back in January, as part of our subscription series for the Ottawa Little Theatre, we went to see “An Inspector Calls”, written by J.B. Priestly. I didn’t get around to reviewing it at the time, partly as it didn’t contribute to my “#50by50” series since I’d already counted a play for that, but I kept the playbill lingering around my desk. The play was first performed back in 1946, and set just prior to the First World War.
Much of the play revolves around noblesse oblige of the wealthy and the fate of the working class, and the gap between the two. The cast is made up generally of a family of five people plus an inspector who calls on them while conducting an enquiry into the death of a young woman by the name of Eva Smith. She appears in shadows as a ghost, but has no lines.
It’s near impossible to review the play without spoilers, and so I won’t try. Essentially, as the night unfolds and the family members individually answer the Inspector’s questions, it moves through Eva’s life (although she was known by different names). All of the events were interconnected by happenstance, not design, and no one was aware of it all, even the girl herself. Over the course of the interrogation, you realize the man of the house, a businessman, used to employ her; the daughter ran into her in a shop; the fiancé of the daughter and the son both interacted with her romantically; and the wife/mother met her through charitable work. In essence, they all treated her badly, partly because they could, and when the girl had nothing left, she committed suicide.
While the plot sounds fantastical, it is the Inspector who sells the story. He is imperious when dealing with them all, insisting on treating them as potential criminals to be interrogated, not aristocrats to be handled nicely. The daughter has lots of angst-filled scenes where she debates the role of women, their collective conscience as a society, the plight of the working class, the out-of-touch nature of her parents, the shame of her fiancé having cheated on her. And ultimately her own guilt. Each member of the family initially denies any responsibility, until in the end, the Inspector verbally leads them to indict themselves. It was very well done.
Then there is a twist, where for a short time, all the guilt appears for nought. They are returning to their regular lives and views of the world, until they get one last shock at the end of the night that’s a bit spooky for them. Twilight Zone almost.
The father, Arthur Birling, was played by Roy Van Hooydonk, and he affected an old English-gentlemen-style of pontification that was mildly endearing and easy to watch, although a trifle slow in the delivery. His wife, Sheila, was played by Katherine Williams and the character was difficult to watch. It was hard to tell if it was the actress or the character, but they were both heavily repressed, and there was little emotional resonance in the performance. There was an okay performance for the fiancé Gerald Croft (played by Guy Newsham), with a bit of a sheepish “boys will be boys” vibe, if only the women would understand. He did a decent job of trying to act/feel like a victim in some places. The character of Eric Birling (played by Jamie Hegland) was relatively minor, and consisted mainly of being surly, drunk and/or childish. Nothing much to watch. I found the role of Sybil Birling, the daughter played by Janet Rice, was a bit too much over-the-top for her angst. Emotionally, she was all over the map as both a character and the actress…it was hard to get a read on her, and some of the dialogue for her went on and on as over-moralizing. Subtlety was not part of the script, apparently.
So you might think I didn’t like the play. Instead, it is all made up for because the role of Inspector Goole (ghoul, get it?) was filled expertly by John Collins. Admittedly he flubbed a line or two in the first half, but considering the number he has, that’s not too surprising. But he had awesome presence. Brutal, foreboding, lurking, dark, imperious, harsh. He’d start off soft in some parts, and then rip the individual to shreds in the interrogation. Digging and digging, poking and prodding until they broke and told him everything, which he already seemed to know anyway (but not in a Columbo sort of way, more like supernaturally). He was fantastic to watch.
I checked out the Internet Movie Database to see if there is a movie version, and there are multiple ones over the years. Including an all-Chinese one a few years ago. Same plot, just different names, and a few small tweaks to the setting, but otherwise the same movie.
In the end, the play was enjoyable, if a little bit heavy-handed on the moralizing in some places, but that is more a reflection of the style of dramas written in the mid-century, and particularly so when set at the turn of the century. The “we know better now” can work quite well by making even one character seem more forward-thinking than the time, but that is not the way the play was designed. Goole plays that role to some extent, but is far too dark to be inspiring. Now, if I can only find it in book form…