An Inspector Calls debuted to much acclaim in London’s West End in 1945, starring Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton and featuring a young Alec Guinness. Written by novelist, screenwriter, and essayist J.B. Priestley, the mystery play has enjoyed successful revivals over the decades, been made into a film with Alistair Sim in 1954, and been adapted for both film and television around the world including loose interpretations in India and Hong Kong.
If you didn’t see the Olivier-winning 1992 Stephen Daldry stage production in London, the 1994 Tony Award-winning New York production starring Philip Bosco, or last year’s staging at the National Theatre, it may be time to see what you’ve been missing. A handsomely mounted 2015 BBC television production with a superlative cast—Miranda Richardson, David Thewlis, Sophie Rundle, Ken Stott, Finn Cole, Chloe Pirrie, and Kyle Soller—is now available in the U.S. Set in a drawing room in 1912 the piece is a sort of hybrid Agatha Christie and late-Edwardian potboiler which against all odds, implausibilities, and the dictates of formula becomes a steadily engrossing family drama with unexpected plot twists and interesting dollops of cultural history and social conscience. This production indicates the sturdy bone structure that has perennially made Priestley’s play a functional success onstage and very popular with audiences, and the beautifully focused direction of Aisling Walsh (Maudie) draws us into surprising depths of humanity and unfolding layers of individual character, psychology, emotion, and motivation. Framed in Martin Fuhrer’s cinematography and Adam Tomlinson’s art direction, this incarnation of An Inspector Calls gleams with a dark elegance.
The scene is a small dinner party in the home of successful businessman Arthur Birling. His private anticipation of a knighthood in the next honours list is the frosting on the cake of the celebration of the Birling daughter’s engagement. We detect a few ominous undercurrents but they seem nothing more than the subtle, garden variety fluctuations of mood found at almost any moment in almost any family. The festivities, however, are soon interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious inspector (Thewlis), who wants to question the family members about the suicide of a destitute young woman (Rundle). The viewer is given only occasional backstory scenes that provide context for the drama that is burgeoning, with heightening urgency, in real time in the Birling house. To comment further on the plot would be to diminish the reverberations of the story’s most unique and engaging ace-in-the-hole. Suffice it to say that at times there are elements of vintage mystery, and at others muted Chekhovian tones and thematic shades of Edith Wharton’s indelible 1905 novel The House of Mirth. What each character has to do with the young woman becomes a concern. Public scandal becomes a concern. And ultimately, questions of class, economics, social justice, hypocrisy, and even of what it means to be human become concerns.
In our current era in which class divisions loom again as chasms and economic determinism as a widening abyss, An Inspector Calls resonates with trenchant topicality. As one character observes: “…their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwine with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other…the time will soon come when, if we do not learn that lesson, we will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.”
Priestley, director Walsh, and the actors’ subtle, incisive performances take us beyond the constructs of clever melodrama into something much more substantial, intriguing, and provocative.
– Hadley Hury
(Available in Amazon Prime, and coming soon on Netflix DVD).