Reviewed by Alex Wilde
An Inspector Calls at Buxton to cross-examine us all.
I can think of no better Midlands venue than Buxton Opera House for JB Priestley’s classic thriller. The restored, stylish and ornate Edwardian opera house perfectly encapsulates the era in which the gripping performance unfolds. This local gem quite literally houses the home of the prosperous Birling Family. A dark divide and rain lashes the cobbled street surrounding the middle-class suburban residence, the audience and folk of all classes are drawn by the light and merriment which spills out into the fictional industrial town of Brumley. It’s 1912 and the talk of war is supplanted by a momentous family celebration; all the while our characters are unsuspecting of the ruination that is striding towards their door.
Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, their daughter Sheila and son Eric are in the drawing room just after dinner celebrating Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Sir George Croft, and heir to the most successful family business in the North of England. Their exclusive gathering is suddenly interrupted when Edna, the parlour maid, announces the unexpected arrival of the all-knowing ‘Police Inspector Goole’. The Inspector has come to their home as part of an inquiry into the death of an unseen young woman – Eva Smith. She has reportedly taken her life in a most horrific way. Although her death is affecting of the Inspector and his values, for the others it’s quite innocuous and certainly of no relevance on their past, present or future – as they confidently and consistently profess.
As the Inspector’s investigation unfolds, we discover that they each have secrets linking them to the tragedy. His startling revelations not only shatter the very foundations of their lives but challenge us all to examine our consciences.
What follows is a perfectly acted, tense and uncomfortable one hour and forty-five, intermission free, exposition by a resolute Inspector. The audience and the family discover that they are all in fact caught up in this poor girl’s demise.
Liam Brennan’s depiction of Goole is exceptional! The suspects, and the audience, are exhausted by his unrelenting exhumation of the truth and accountability. His clever sparring with all the characters is a joy to behold. This Shakespearean heavyweight pulls no punches as he drives forward the drama, with his questions creating shocking moments and gripping cliff-hangers for the audience. Purposeful and prophetic, the Inspector leaves us with a terrible vision of the future.
Poisoned by dramatic irony, the Birling family is compromised of the immensely talented Jeffery Harmer as the hard-headed Mr Birling, his bold and patronising assertions route him in the not too distant past. Christine Kavanagh shapes a cold-hearted and snobbish matriarch who has a complex relationship with her children. The grown, but naive and entitled, siblings are brought to life credibly by Chloe Orrock and Ryan Saunders. Rounding off the main cast as the confident and charming fiancé is Alasdair Buchan. Each of them quickly develop a unique enmity with the titular character as he moves from one morally questionable line of enquiry to the next. Also present and beyond suspicion, is Edna played by Diana Payne-Myers. Unassuming, but certainly not insignificant for the audience reflecting on the underlying issues.
The creative work is a marvel. The staging is captivating, and a true enhancement of the original directions laid out in the play, which has been a staple of English Literature GCSE reading for decades. Truly taken to a new level for the National Theatre by Stephen Daldry; his visionary, riveting and multi-award wining version has been seen by more than 4 million people worldwide.
More relevant than ever before, An Inspector Calls is a subtle, uncompromising expose of social responsibility, gender, age and class inequality, wrapped in a timeless crime thriller for all generations. An unwavering five stars – not to be missed!
Tickets cost from £26 (booking fees may apply).
An Inspector Calls is at Buxton Opera House from 19-23 November 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit buxtonoperahouse.org.uk or call the box office on 01298 72190.
Buxton Opera House, Water Street, Buxton, Derbyshire, SK17 6XN | 01298 72190