I learned a lesson when I went to the theatre last night - do not stand too close to large groups of school children while waiting to take your seats. Theatre staff may mistake you for Responsible Adults. This rule applies doubly when your companions for the evening include a librarian - this strange form of humankind radiates an aura of educational authority that ordinary people subconsciously sense and react to.
That lesson clued me into the fact that An Inspector Calls is still a set text on many schools’ curriculums, as it was many years ago, when I had to devote a goodly portion of my time to studying the play. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but the experience did leave me with some idea of what to expect from the New Wimbledon Theatre last night … or so I thought. It may have been the simple passage of time along with the experiences gathered along the way, but I think it had more to do with the direction given to the show, but this version was different. (If the changes are, in fact, due to comparisons made through the smoky passage of time, then I hope you’ll forgive me.)
I remember the play as being extremely grim, but not this time. The cast gave exaggerated performances then lent an tone of caricature to the show, although none did so as well as Sandra Duncan, playing the role of Mrs. Birling. With careful pauses, adjustments of jewellery, and movement of shoulders, she transformed the character from unlikable pomposity into someone whom it was a positive joy to hate.
There was, however, no bigger transformation from my school day memories to the stage at Wimbledon then could be seen in Inspector Goole. Previously a mysterious and largely subdued spectre who grimly haunts the family over the course of an evening while radiating stern authority around tightly controlled emotions, here he becomes an emotional roller-coaster who very obviously cares for the common man, takes ghoulish delight in ripping down the walls the Birlings have built around themselves, and invades the personal space of other characters at will.
It makes for a lively and highly entertaining performance that was far more enjoyable then I expected (I confess that my primary reason for going was for a nostalgia kick) and the show managed to exceed my expectations in just about every way.
An Inspector Calls very nearly manages to pull it off the move towards comedy. Unfortunately, there were a few moments which were particularly grim and weren’t lightened by the performances. These were incongruous enough, and soon after genuinely funny moments, that they triggered laughter among some members of the audience.
I’m not going to suggest it was perfect, as it does have some flaws. Now I am an adult, the socialist message J. B. Priestly wrote into it is far more obvious and not made any more subtle by Inspector Goole delivering his “What we have learned” message to the audience, rather than the family. It comes across in a fashion horribly reminiscent of the morals at the end of certain Saturday morning cartoons that underlined and hammered home the message with a sledge hammer in case young minds failed to pick up on it while watching the story.
As, despite its flaws, it was still a very good play, I do not want to end on a downward note, so I shall take a moment to mention the set, which was rather impressive. Rather then allowing the dining room and the stage to be one - which is the default, but pedestrian, setting for the play - a small house is erected in the centre, with the majority of the stage taking the form of the streets of Brumbly.
The house is entirely filled by the dining room, with exits leading onto the ‘street’ and to backstage, although, as the play progresses various changes are wrought on the set which parallel the Birling’s state of mind.
If I wanted to spoil it for you, I might start analysing the symbolism in more detail, and make special mention of just how everything and everybody was arranged when the curtain falls at the end - but I’ll resist the urge and instead say that this show is well worth a viewing, so if you can catch it while it is on tour, then I recommend you grab the chance.