The Ghost of a Chance

J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at the International Theatre: a drawing room drama of revolutionary ideas

Mrs. Birling, her son Eric and daughter Sheila each have their secrets to hide | Photo: Rolf Bock

Left: Gerald accepts the return of his engagement ring from Sheila. Right: The Inspector challenges the Eric Birley to explain his relationship with the dead Eva Smith. | Photos: Rolf Bock

Mrs. Birling, her son Eric and daughter Sheila

Mrs. Birling, her son Eric and daughter Sheila each have their secrets to hide | Photo: Rolf Bock

When An Inspector Calls premiered in Moscow in 1945, it must have seemed to its Russian audience like an English version of Chekhov, with its feckless upper classes refusing to face facts as their own doom approached. Set in 1912, J.B. Priestley’s most famous work was a morality play of ancien regime exploitation on the eve of war and social change. This would not have surprised the playwright’s friends. The wealthy, Cambridge-educated Priestley was himself a committed socialist. And when the play opened a year later in London, in the immediate aftermath of the landslide Labour victory of 1945, revolution seemed to be at hand.

We know what was to happen. But Priestley didn’t, and his characters don’t either. He was offering a timely political drama with the twist of a spooky thriller. A girl, Eva Smith, has committed suicide; a police inspector brings the news to the well-to-do Birley family, during the celebration of their daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, scion of an even better-placed family. What has this suicide to do with any of them? Through the inspector’s questioning, they find out, and no one comes out of it well. Now what? They can’t bring the girl back to life. But will they at least admit that they’ve played a part in bringing about her death? Can they understand that what they have done so casually has had real and even tragic consequences?

Had he set the play in his own time, Priestley might have avoided much of the criticism immediately levelled at it: To contemporaries, it seemed old-fashioned, its red-hot demand for social justice outweighed by its Edwardian trappings. At the International Theatre, director Eric Lomas has brought the play forward to 1938, but it could just as well have been set right now in 2012, with the self-serving Birleys a bunch of corporate fatcats, and Inspector Goole the voice of the 99 per cent.

“There are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths…,” says the Inspector, “all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do… We are responsible for each other.”

The younger generation gradually understand this; the parents don’t. And it may not matter, anyway. Eva Smith has other names, and possibly other faces. Perhaps she doesn’t exist at all; perhaps it’s all a hoax; perhaps there’s been no suicide. A telephone call lets them off the public hook: All back to normal, everything’s fine. But within the family, the truth is out. The moment when they suddenly turn on one another is startling, and a tribute to the excellent ensemble direction that prevails throughout the evening.

Gerald accepts the return of his engagement ring

Left: Gerald accepts the return of his engagement ring from Sheila. Right: The Inspector challenges the Eric Birley to explain his relationship with the dead Eva Smith. | Photos: Rolf Bock

This is not the Burgtheater, but the players are well-cast and the performance is convincing, with the small theatre favouring the more conversational manner of pearly-voiced Laura Mitchell as Mrs. Birling and Andrew Phillips as her son Eric. The latter, coming in from the rain, bedraggled in soul and body, took the actor’s palm tonight.

Alan Burgon is strong as the Inspector, his clever costume underscoring his ambiguity. Though he speaks in the authoritative tones of the upper classes, he is dressed in shabby, even grubby clothes, with workman’s boots on his feet. His presence dominates, but he gives nothing of himself away, so that the family are left asking whether he was really an inspector at all, and the audience wondering whether he even existed. Is Inspector Goole in fact some kind of ghoul – social conscience incarnate, perhaps, or a presager of future catastrophe?

Alex Scott Fairley brings moving touches of remorse to the otherwise stiff role of Gerald, the quintessential upper-middle-class Englishman, and Don Fenner successfully portrays an over-assertive Arthur Birley, a self-made man still unsure of his place. The highly-strung Sheila – now and then a little too highly-strung – is played by Julia C. Thorne; her nervy insistence, though, is Priestley himself, determined to convince us of what’s at stake.

“They’re not cheap labour,” Sheila says of her father’s factory workers. “They’re people.” A hundred years on from its original setting, Priestley’s indictment of the callous ways of power remains valid, and so does his challenge. If we’re to have the ghost of a chance of a fairer world, then, as the playwright himself said, “somebody, somewhere will have to do some hard thinking soon.”

 

An Inspector Calls
Shows at 19:30, Tues-Sat through 21 Apr. 2012
International Theatre
9., Porzellangasse 8
(01) 319 62 72
www.internationaltheatre.at

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