‘An Inspector Calls’ at the Wallis is Absolutely Flawless

by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

“The point is, you don’t seem to have learnt anything.”

It bears exclamation in the first line: An Inspector Calls at the Wallis Annenberg, a modern re-imagining of the original script set in 1912, directed by Stephen Daldry is absolutely flawless beginning to end, from the extraordinary set, sound and lighting design to exquisite directing, pure use of the stage, costuming, and stunning performances by the entire cast.

As an inspection of conscience and morals, the play’s surface message, ‘We are all intertwined’ is voiced right from the mouth of Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) himself. But it’s so much bigger than that.

With every word and action we take, we are all absolutely complicit in the success or the failure, life, and death of everyone else. And no matter how much you try to shake off or outright ignore that fact like it doesn’t exist, you simply cannot get away from it. We are all guilty.

Hamish Riddle and Lianne Harvey in The Wallis Annenberg's, AN INSPECTOR CALLS directed by Stephen Daldry. Photo credit: Mark Douet
Hamish Riddle and Lianne Harvey
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Written by English dramatist J. B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls is a three-act drama which takes place on a single night in April 1912 in the home of the prosperous upper-middle-class Birling family, who live comfortably in the fictional town of Brumley. During a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Sheila Birling (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald (Andrew Mack), the Birling family is visited by a man claiming to be an inspector who questions them one by one about the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith (also known as Daisy Renton). As the night goes on it is revealed that each one of them has had some part to play in Eva’s demise. Not only that, the interrogation mysteriously is ordered in the timeline in which each of them had contact with her,  starting with her employment at the Arthur Birling’s factory.  Birling, a hard-headed businessman fired Daisy for asking for a more equitable living wage and sends her as well as her colleagues packing as a retaliation for their protest.  Subsequently descends into poverty and despair as she coincidentally comes into contact with the respective Birling family members and even Gerald, Sheila’s fiance who it is revealed took Eva/Daisy as a secret lover, ignoring an unsuspecting Sheila.

As Inspector Goole confronts them one by one, they all, come to understand the consequences of their terrible actions for Eva/Daisy but how their actions have directly affected each other.

Throughout the play, Inspector Goole’s identity, why he is actually here and how he knows so much is never fully determined.  And the ambiguity tosses around in the minds of both the players and the viewers from their seats in the house. His foreboding presence and determined questioning are powerful enough to bypass the abstract of his existence. It is a puzzle that is never fully solved. And the intrigue is delicious.

Once hailed as a scathing criticism of the hypocrisies of Victorian and Edwardian English society, An Inspector Calls really should be looked upon with fresh eyes. It completely speaks to the condition of our current society largely in disarray, beset by resurging issues of poverty, displacement, increasing violence, racism, religious tyranny, the disappearance of the middle class, corporate control of resources, people everywhere unwilling or unable to find common ground even in the fight for social justice and the giant inequities being sanctioned by governments worldwide (despite their protestations to the contrary) as they fail their people. These aren’t mere parallels.

So very prescient is Sheila’s outcry for her parents and fiance to really hear what is being said and to absorb the new reality. So eye-opening it is for her brother Eric (Hamish Riddle) who is overwhelmed by guilt but who steps squarely forward to claim it.  Both commit themselves to acknowledge the truth and face the consequences head-on.  As the new generation, they are the hope of the play.

In a momentary discovery that Inspector Goole might have been a fraud and that the whole episode might have been a ruse, Arthur and his wife Sybil Birling along with Gerald, immerse themselves in a hysteria of absurd celebration.  Though all of the facts have been unearthed, are true, and all the incidents have indeed happened, the loophole is all the ‘out’ they need to absentee themselves from any responsibility for their horrible actions.

At the finale, as a wall erects itself separating the old and the young, physically, metaphorically and morally, and as the children stare aghast at the delirium on the other side and the refusal of the elders to change, Sheila’s words “…you don’t seem to have learnt anything.” are explosive to the ears. The younger people cannot go back to the way things were. And they won’t. They have completely broken with all things in the past. But even still you have to wonder, is there a future?

Very Highly Recommended

Starring: Liam Brennan (Inspector Goole), Christine Kavanagh (Sybil Birling), Jeff Harmer (Arthur Birling), Andrew Macklin (Gerald Croft), Lianne Harvey (Sheila Birling), Hamish Riddle (Eric Birling) and Diana Payne-Myers (Edna).

Photo (above) by Mark Douet: Liam Brennan. An Inspector Calls Tour 2018 -19. 

Copyright © 2019 Tracey Paleo – Gia On The Move

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