An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Festival (a review)

The Inspector Calls, playing through October at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is an ingeniously plotted classic mystery play, full of well-timed twists and turns, a sure bet for an evening’s entertainment. (I rant about this play’s strong ideological content in a separate post.) The Shaw Festival’s presentation is done well, but is not, to our mind, fully satisfying.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

In The Inspector Calls, the well-to-do Birling family has gathered for a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Birling’s daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. But the party is interrupted by the arrival of a man who identifies himself as Inspector Goole, and who tells the family he has just come from the morgue to ask them questions about a poor young woman who had just taken her own life.

The Birlings (Peter Hutt and Mary Haney) and Croft (Graeme Somerville) indignantly disclaim any knowledge of the girl. But as the Inspector questions them (moralizing as he goes), it becames apparent to the smug, well-to-do Birlings that they have more to do with the fate of the late Eva Smith than they thought.

Revelations follow upon revelations, and playwright J. B. Priestley feeds us just enough clues to let us guess what will unfold next. In fact, at the performance we attended, we could hear elderly, hard-of-hearing theater-goers behind us loudly whispering “I’ll bet it was really him that . . .” to their spouses during pregnant pauses in the action. At intermission, the conversation on the sidewalks outside the Festival Theater buzzed with speculation as to how it would all turn out.

It is a pleasure, year after year, to see Benedict Campbell at the Shaw Festival. What an outstanding, versatile actor! Six years ago, he was superb as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, at the Stratford Festival (playing with Christopher Plummer as Lear). Since then, happily, he has been at the Shaw, where, two years ago, we were genuinely moved at his and Kelli Fox’s portrayal of the the complex relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Last year, we were astonished to see him singing and dancing up a storm in Mack and Mabel, in which, energetically and single-handedly, he set the tone for a fabulous production. We had no idea!

This year, Campbell is the Inspector in Priestley’s thriller, and he has just the solid heft and authoritative presence that the role requires. He is, in fact, so convincing as an English police detective that many in our audience seemed to have difficulty accepting the possibility that he might be something else altogether. As to that, Priestley gives the audience plenty of clues, beginning with the Inspector’s name, “Goole.” Even so, I think many left the Festival Theater genuinely baffled as to just who had been visiting the Birling family.

The set for An Inspector Calls features a large platform that rotates imperceptibly by 180 degrees during the course of the play, moving the actors and the props with it. We are to understand, I supposed, that just as the self-satisfied Birling family come to see themselves in different ways, so we the audience are also to see them from different perspectives. (As noted in my earlier post, Priestley’s objective in this play is as much to indoctrinate as it is to entertain.)

All said and done, however, the “thrill” was missing from this thriller. The revelatory moment in the last act when chills should have run up and down our spines came and went without chills. We never made any sense of a mysterious light that flitted randomly along the edges of the set. A female figure (who had no lines) appeared hazily on stage between scene changes for no apparent reason. As the Birlings, two of our very favorite actors, Peter Hutt and Mary Haney, were not permitted to demonstrate their dramatic range and left us flat.

The Shaw Festival’s artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, seems to be following the practice of her predecessor, Christopher Newton, in allocating at least one slot in a season’s playbill to something in the nature of a mystery or thriller, plays like Laura, Sorry Wrong Number, and adaptations of Agatha Christie. Here we are reminded that our very worst experience at the Shaw Festival involved a play in this slot, 2006’s disastrous The Invisible Man. The sets and the costumes were gorgeous, the special effects superb, and the acting unobjectionable. But what mediocre material the cast had to work with! This “suspense” play, in which invisible parts of Griffin’s body were revealed during the opening scene, was about as suspenseful as the slasher movies in which teenagers start getting axed in the first five minutes. Nothing built up to anything, and the Invisible Man himself was a whining johnny-one-note. We never got to know any characters well enough to care about them, and the playwright failed to introduce two important characters, Dr. Kemp and his wife, until the play was mostly over. This year’s An Inspector Calls is more like it.

Interested in reading more about J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls? See my post An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival’s 2008 production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1939 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.


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