Theatre Review: An Inspector Calls

J.B. Priestley’s old-fashioned drawing-room drama written in 1945 still packs a moral wallop. On the surface, it’s a static set, with a bunch of English upper middle-class people talking around the celebratory dining table. Dad and mum, daughter and son, together with the daughter’s new fiancé, cheerfully celebrate the engagement. A mysterious Inspector Goole knocks on their door and starts asking them all questions.

By

Presented by The Therry Dramatic Society Inc.
Reviewed 15th August, 2019

J.B. Priestley’s old-fashioned drawing-room drama written in 1945 still packs a moral wallop. On the surface, it’s a static set, with a bunch of English upper middle-class people talking around the celebratory dining table. Dad and mum, daughter and son, together with the daughter’s new fiancé, cheerfully celebrate the engagement. A mysterious Inspector Goole knocks on their door and starts asking them all questions.  J. B. Priestley, novelist, playwright, essayist and fearless op-ed writer was an unashamed champion of the British underdog, renowned for his left-wing views.  Three parts drama to one part polemic, An Inspector Calls is as much a tonic worth prescribing to today’s Australian governments as to Britain’s society in 1946. Priestley’s writing challenges any societal system which operates with an empathy bypass.

In this production, Therry has taken Priestley seriously. Director Angela Short, by not treating the show as a charming museum piece, has ensured that the ethical bite of its arguments remains intact despite set and costumes faithfully reflecting the prosperous England of 1912. The impact of the play is enhanced by its innocuous appearance.  Lulled into a false sense of security, just like the on-stage characters, we fail to anticipate the enormity of the threat until it is upon us.

As newly-engaged Sheila Birling, Lani Gerbi gleams. Her emotional gamut, from delight to despair, flows clearly and naturally, propelled by excellent articulation and responsive acting. Gerbi gives the journey of this pivotal character a humane and touching dimension.  Sheila’s fiancé, upper-crust Gerald Croft, is played by Matthew Chapman. Although he hands in a carefully balanced performance, indicators of his higher social status are only intermittently present.

Mother of the house, Sybil Birling, is a solid pillar of moral rectitude; her hauteur is elegantly maintained by Rebecca Kemp, whose clarity of intention and articulation are both excellent. Edna, the maid, potters in and out of the room, and it’s to Heather Riley’s credit that her servant is as self-effacing and efficient as all good servants should be. Young Eric, the Birlings’ tearaway son, worries his parents dreadfully. Blond floppy hair, “I-couldn’t-care-less” head tosses, and a sullen, put-upon scowl are Dylan O’Donnell’s lively contribution. His relish in this “bad-boy” role is evident, and he injects much energy into the plot.

Paterfamilias of the household, Arthur Birling, is a prosperous businessman with considerable civic stature in his community. Patrick Clements undertakes this central role with physical gusto, and devotes much energy to the delivery of his text. Sadly, his voice is not up to the intensities of volume and emotion which he wishes to employ.  Clements’ voice production is effortful and constricted; perhaps he is yet another victim of this season’s vicious ‘flu.

As the mysterious Inspector himself, Mark Drury holds the whole show together with his finely judged performance. Drury’s character contains both a systematic Mister Plod and a metaphysical avenging angel, speaking up fearlessly on behalf of the underprivileged. His deliberate pace, utter clarity, physical and psychic authority, and collaborative work combine to make Drury the conscience of this morality play. His recurring phrase, “A girl died tonight” tolls like a funereal bell by the end of the play. Director Short no doubt had much to do with crafting the spaces around Inspector Goole’s text, as well as the distances between him and every other family member.

A word about the set, designed (and construction-managed) by Don Oswald. Its very structure reflects the fragmentation of an apparently coherent social system. Instead of a standard box set, five flats, all of different shapes, sketch the bounds of the dining room. The underlying lath-and-plaster structure is exposed on some edges. Nothing can be fully concealed.  It looks like a secure home; it is merely a thin façade. This set design provides an integrated foundation for the philosophic and emotional transactions of the play.

An Inspector Calls is not museum theatre. Despite its 1912 setting, it is thoughtful, provocative and uncomfortably relevant to today. Well done, Angela Short and Therry!

 Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue: The Arts Theatre

Season: Evenings 15th – 17th August and 21st – 24th August at 8:00pm

Matinees both Saturdays at 2:00pm

Duration: 2.5 hrs

Tickets: Full Price: $29:00;  Concession: $24:00

Bookings: http://www.trybookings.com  Phone:  8410 5515 (from 12 noon ‘til late Mon-Sat)
           

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