Sunday, 11 December 2011

"An Inspector Calls," starring Tom Mannion, at the Plymouth Theatre Royal (December 10th 2011)

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This is going to be less a review of a play, and more a review of a set.  I ended up feeling quite conflicted about this production, which was originally directed by Stephen Daldry, and the set was my main reason for feeling so.  When you read this review you might come out of it thinking that I hated the show, which is far from the case; I enjoyed it, but with some reservations.  It is a production that has engaged my thoughts and made me question my opinions, and that dialogue between the play and the audience member is surely a good thing.  I would rather have strong feelings and ideas about something than be left feeling uninvolved and ambivalent about what I have seen or read.

My misgivings are by no means the fault of the actors, all of whom were very good.  I have seen J.B. Priestley's play before, so I knew what to expect and I know that this is a play that, in my opinion, stands or falls according to the casting of the part of Inspector Goole.  When Tom Mannion first entered, I found my eye drawn to him - which is entirely as it should be.  The part needs to be played by an actor with a commanding, dominant presence and he was more than equal to that.  The rest of the cast were also extremely strong, with Karen Archer in particular excelling at the steely hauteur needed for the part of the matriarch Sybil Birling.

The opening is atmospheric, as the curtain opens onto fog and rain onstage (they really should warn people that if you sit in the front row, as we did, you might get a little damp).  The play starts with a family party being held by the Birling family to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft.  Arthur Birling is an industrialist with pretentions to influence in society - aspiring to a seemingly imminent knighthood - and Gerald Croft is the son of a fellow businessman.  The set is difficult to describe, and it seems to me that it must be quite hard for the actors to work.  The set shows the exterior of the Birling house, raised up above stage level, and the audience watches the engagement party as an outsider looking in through the windows.  When Inspector Goole visits the house to tell them of the suicide of a young woman, the exterior walls are opened out to show the inside of the home as their lives are laid bare to scrutiny.  The Birling family speak down to the inspector at ground level, or variously descend an ironwork staircase to come down to his level but, to the best of my memory, Inspector Goole is never permitted to forget his lowly status and ascend into the inner sanctum of the house.

This is all very symbolic; the raised house is the pinnacle from which the complacent Birlings are dragged.  Inspector Goole's questioning breaks down the facade of the perfect, happy, family and, once this has been destroyed, the raised level of their house breaks, tilts, and electric lights explode.  For me, however, the most effective thing wasn't the gimmicky tilting and exploding set: it was the human stage business of the elder Birlings picking up their scattered silverware from street level and trying to clean it off as they also try to reconstruct their lives.

My problem is that I'm not sure that it isn't all too symbolic.  The entrance of Inspector Goole was accompanied by ominous, bass-laden, music that whacks you over the head with the character's significance.  The programme notes seem to be suggesting that this staging has rescued the play from its hide-bound, repertory reputation, and supplanted more traditional stagings.  I don't think that this is a good thing.  A staging that is this, well, stagey, and gimmicky seems to me to imply either a) the suspicion the Priestley's play isn't strong enough to put across its own message or b) a patronising suggestion that a modern audience might not "get it."  I would have liked to have felt this production had more faith in both the author and the audience.

Perhaps I am being too harsh and traditional in my tastes; this is a highly successful production that is well regarded, so I might be alone in my criticism of the staging.  However, when I saw Priestley's play first - probably in my early teens - in a traditional production, I was so impressed by it that I pestered my parents into buying me a copy of the script in the theatre shop after the show.  I still believe that it is a powerful, deeply moral play and this production reminded me of that - but I am not sure that the gimmicks of the production didn't, for me anyway, detract from the strength of Priestley's dialogue.  The problem with the production for me was summed up by the directorial decision to have Inspector Goole's powerful, final speech delivered direct to the audience.  I found this jarring and lacking in subtlety: I think the production should have shown more faith in its audience to understand Priestley's intent in the play without such obvious grandstanding.  Priestley's play is rather like being repeatedly prodded, but this production is more like being whacked around the back of the head with a plank of wood.

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