Don’t stammer and yammer at me again, man. I’m losing all patience with you people, cries the Inspector during the long and miserably slow second act of ‘An Inspector Calls.’ And the audience are inclined to agree with him… It is a shame that J.B. Priestley’s powerful play with its potential for wonderful dramatic energy and didactic command could fail to produce any emotion in its audience other than boredom and irritation.
Priestley’s play, a favourite of teachers and exam boards for decades, is a thought provoking and engaging commentary on the failures of a capitalistic society and pupils all over the country will continue enthusiastically debating issues of collective versus individual responsibility for many years to come. However, while theatre companies can safely assume that audiences will continue to demand their performances of the play, that is certainly no excuse to produce a show that lacks creativity, energy and dramatic interest.
However, the performance had its uses: over 50% of Saturday night’s audience will be sitting their GCSE exam on ‘An Inspector Calls’ in just a few weeks. The slow and drawn out presentation of each line of the play allowed them to reflect on their revision notes for each quote before moving on to the next moment – very useful indeed! I am sure teachers will be interested to see how their students add to their notes after the experience of watching the play performed live.
Comments on characterisation could include something along the lines of, ‘Mr Birling’s unhealthily heavy breathing and constant looking down his nose shows the audience he is rich and probably eats and drinks too much and has adopted a bizarre posture to show his status’ – not the most creative and nuanced characterisation one could imagine from Priestley’s text. Eric was the most convincing actor, simply because his presentation of being drunk and fed up added some variety to the stage. However, perhaps I am being too critical and should just assume that the actors were deliberately selecting just one or two character traits to help keep things simple for their young audiences. As a teacher myself, I would give my students more credit.
Let’s move on: it is best not to dwell on the negative, but instead to use the method we teachers are supposed to adopt when marking essays: pick out what went well. Firstly, the opening idea of having Edna the maid ‘wake up’ each of the characters as they sat slumped over the dinning table, was an interesting touch as it highlighted the vast class distinctions in Britain at the start at the 20th Century and introduced the theme of upper class snobbery and close minded self assurance.
The set design added to the theme of contrasts; the dinning table, representing a happy and ‘pleased with themselves’ Birling family, was placed at opposite sides of the stage to the telephone which represented the reality of the outside world coming in and sharply shaking up their neat little environment.
The genius of Priestley’s text itself is made evident through a live performance as the Inspector’s controlling method of drawing out information with ‘one line of inquiry at a time’ is balanced against his more emotive and passionate declarations for change and understanding.
My love of Priestley’s play stays strong and I can at least thank the Tin Shed Company for providing an excellent revision tool for my pupils. My advice is simply to pick up the pace and trust in your audience’s intellect.