An Inspector Calls: A Family Haunted

J.B. Priestly’s Dark and Very Modern Story of Ordinary Cruelty in Victorian London

On The Town | Lisa Malzer | February 2007

Laura Mitchell, Roxanne Carless, Eric Lomas and Jeff Sturgeon as the four members of the Birling Family (Photo: International Theater)

A glow of soft light radiates through the windows as we approach the International Theater on Porzellangasse. And inside, suddenly, we’re awash in laughter, chatter, and the tinkling of Sekt glasses, the excitement of what could be a gathering of intimate friends.

After the lobby lights flash a second time, the theatergoers file inside for the premiere of J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls. All rows are filled, everyone expectant. This is electricity of opening night.

The room goes black. Old radio clips of momentous events – heroics, disasters, assassinations and war – sound in the dark. The curtain swings to the left. Suddenly we are in the bourgeois dining room of the Birling Family, c. 1912: Old pictures on the wall in ornate gold frames, dining table draped in lace, windows dressed heavily.

With port and pomposity, the Birlings are celebrating their daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft. But the gaiety suddenly ceases when an unexpected visitor arrives, a police inspector, inquiring about the suicide of a young woman working in Mr. Birling’s factory.

As the play unfolds, we learn that everyone in the room was involved with young Eva Smith in some way, and directly or indirectly played a part in her death. But the truth is hard to face.

Set in the English Midlands, this play is spiked with socialist messages delivered by the unflappable Inspector Goole. Scenes and revelation tick inexorably by like clockwork, and the actors’ timing is key. In this production, directed by Jack Babb, everything comes at just the right moment, a fine ensemble from start to finish.

If anyone stands out, it is Inspector Goole, played by Allen Browne. From his first startling appearance in a slate-grey vested Edwardian suit (designed by Gloria Sattel and Laura Mitchell) and cocked bowler hat, we instantly grasp the Birlings’ consternation. Goule’s gaze is his best weapon; he glances repeatedly at his pocket watch, as time and fate march on unforgivingly. Goole wonders if the members of this family are able to leave their insufferable, self-centered ways, or if they will learn only through "fire and blood and anguish."

The inspector enters at the edge of the stage, where the Birling’s do not see him. Jack Babb sees Goole as a ghost – a ghoul, as his name implies. When he enters the dining room, he becomes visible but remains ethereal, as his clothing blends in with the belle époque blue-gray wallpaper and drapes.

Browne’s inspector must have "the patience that you need for a child," Babb says, and this becomes clear as each character retreats to a separate corner for the inspector’s summation. As the sordid reality is revealed, Browne’s calm is punctuated with razor sharp insight that spins definitions. He is elusive and intriguing – and dangerous, as he brings the family’s wrongdoings to light and watches them destroy each other.

Mr. Birling is particularly unwilling to acknowledge his mistake, and Jeff Sturgeon brings out a complex mixture of embarrassing pretentiousness, underlying insecurity and unforgivable indifference. He tries to defend his wife, but cowers when the inspector snaps at him. Other times he looks stern and stiff-lipped, pacing heavily across to the port decanter, a man too proud for his own good.

As he rants on, he is challenged only by his son Eric, played by Eric Lomas.

"Nobody wants war" says Mr. Birling, "except some half-civilized folks in the Balkans." Eric Birling knows his father is off target, but believes he is beyond redemption. Slumped over, Eric is discouraged.

He delivers his confrontational lines with the right dose of pointed sarcasm. Later, however, when Eric and his sister defy their parents’ indifference, Lomas has lost the fire the moment requires.

In the role of Sheila Birling, Roxanne Carless is cheerful and confident, eyes glistening. She alone sides with the inspector and shows remorse for her role in Eva’s death. When the inspector interrogates her, Carless is concerned, wringing her handkerchief, but her dismay is unconvincing and repetitiously breathy.

At one point Sheila and her fiancée Gerald Croft (Jonathan Sharp) are alone. He wants to admit his infidelity, and here Sharp shines. He speaks passionately about his days with Eva, raising his eyebrows, looking up to the sky wide-eyed in sweet remembrance of her. Facing the inspector, he speaks with a shrewd honesty, without remorse. With Mr. Birling, he aspires to be the son-in-law any father would want.

Laura Mitchell is particularly strong as Mrs. Birling. From the opening, she is stately, and keeps her composure throughout, the lady of a distinguished house. Mitchell is particularly captivating with her shifty-eyes and aloofness around the inspector, strategically trying to block the truth.

Eventually, the truth catches up. Inspector Goole turns to the crowd, checking his watch. Our time, too, will come. The inspector was right about the future, Babb commented. Now as then, everything follows a "chain of events."

As the lights on stage dim, we again hear the radio and the sound of President Bush comes over the loud     speakers: "We will stay the course." In the Birling’s parlor we witness our own day. For, as the Austrian’s say, it is all only theater.

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