A full 70 years after it was first performed in Russia of all places, Bradford-born author and playwright John Boynton ‘J.B.’ Priestley’s timeless chiller ‘An Inspector Calls’ is still going strong and last night it made another successful appearance at Milton Keynes Theatre to rapturous applause ahead of a week long run.
My 16-year-old grandson says that the play’s arrival is perfect timing for he is currently studying Priesley’s classic ahead of his English Lit GCSE. While last night’s performance saw hundreds of youngsters ferried in by the coach load, he’s due to see it on Friday although award-winning director Stephen ‘Billy Elliot’ Daldry’s production of this tense and intriguing drama may not exactly follow the original text.
While Priestley’s original was set in 1912, Daldry’s version – which was first seen at the National Theatre back in 1992 – sees the cast dressed for dinner in pre-First World War attire while others in the cast are clearly from a period at least 30 years further on.
So we get an ‘outer play’ half set in the 1940s after an air-raid siren signals the opening sequence at the dinner party in celebration of an engagement at the comfortable home of rich and smug Yorkshire factory owner Arthur Birling (Geoff Leesley) and his wife Sybil (Caroline Wildi).
But the evening is disrupted when dour Scottish Inspector Goole (played by Liam Brennan) knocks at the door of the Birling’s Edwardian home dressed in traditional 1940s CID raincoat and trilby. Goole’s arrival signals the start of an investigation into the apparent shocking suicide of 24-year-old Eva Smith, the aftermath of which provides an emotional theatrical experience for the whole audience.
Goole applies relentlessly pressures on each individual family member and encourages them to confront the truth, thus we learn of their individual roles in the tragedy.
With a loud orchestral cello helping ramp up the tension, there are certainly plenty of highly-charged moments as the Birling family are forced to descend from their comfortable existence into a world they hardly recognise… their accuser pointing to each in turn to link them with the departed.
Daughter Sheila Birling (Katherine Jack), her fiancee Gerald Croft (Matthew Douglas) and Sheila’s younger brother Eric (Hamish Riddle) all have links with the unfortunate Ms Smith as do the parents but Goole already knows that as the mystery unfolds.
There are excellent performances from the blustering Arthur Birling (Geoff Leesley) and his contrasting wife Sybil (Caroline Wildi) who adds a few comedy moments. Meanwhile Liam Brennan is absolutely dominant as the inspector. He’s a really commanding policeman with a booming voice, the audience seeing him build an inner anger which he somehow keeps under control.
Then there’s Hamish Riddle as the Birling’s foolish and fragile teenage son Eric who likes a drink (or three) while the sometimes over-confident Gerald Croft (played by Matthew Douglas), really makes the part of Sheila’s wandering fiancee his own.
I also loved the way in which Diane Payne-Myers took on the role of the Birling’s usually silent maid Edna for she constantly scurries around the set dishing out cups of tea in tin mugs as this ‘whodunnit’ unfolds.
While Daldry’s stage direction is excellent, quite why there are ten or so supernumeraries and children standing around as it adds little to the story or plot as they appear through the heavy mist which blows in from the wings.
Ian MacNeil was responsible for the clever set design which see the action taking place outside the Birling’s three-storey mansion which opens up to reveal the dinner party setting. And that’s helped by some subtle lighting courtesy of Rick Fisher, while helping build the reality is Stephen Warbeck’s evocative and haunting musical score which adds much emotion to the events which unfold on stage.
Interestingly, and perhaps rightly so, there is no interval, so be prepared to sit out the one hours 45 minutes. An Inspector Calls plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (February 27) with performances each evening at 7.30pm and matinees today (Wednesday) at 2.30pm, tomorrow (Thursday) and Saturday.
Ticket prices start at £12.50 from the box office on 0844 871 7652 or at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes with both online and phone bookings carrying a transaction fee of £2.85 – excluding Theatre Card and Groups.