Stephen Daldry’s 1992 National Theatre re-imagining of J.B. Priestley’s classic 1945 thriller An Inspector Calls has been heralded as a defining moment in modern theater — but after seeing the production currently touring through Los Angeles at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, it’s a bit mystifying as to why.
Described as Agatha Christie meets The Twilight Zone, the plays follows the startling events of a night in 1912 when Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives at the wealthy Birling family home to investigate the death of a young woman. The secrets he uncovers threatens to shake the very foundation of this once upstanding family.
The production is hampered greatly by its perplexing staging. While Ian MacNeil’s expansive set is gorgeous to look at, it creates a playing environment that seems to be striving for a metaphorical framework that remains largely inscrutable. The play opens with young children turning on a radio and cajoling a curtain to raise on a cobblestone street (complete with mesmerizing rain and fog) and the Victorian-style Birling family home. The home sits on a raised platform, and the cobblestone paving rises up around the home in disarray, lending the setting a sense that it’s a London street post-1940s-air-raid rather than a wealthy drawing room.
It’s not clear if this is meant to evoke the time in which the play was written or to further underline the gradual decay of the Birling family that occurs over the course of the production. Perhaps both — but a set that requires that many mental gymnastics is more a distraction than a storytelling aid. All this is furthered by the presence of a spectral ensemble whose purpose is unclear.
The text itself is partly to blame. Its Agatha Christie-esque twists and turns are easy to spot from a mile away, and each reveal feels more inevitable than astonishing. It uses the mystery framework to hammer home its message about social conscience, community, and the horrific fallout of strident individualism and an “every man for himself” attitude. As Inspector Goole picks apart the sins and assumptions of the Birling family, we’re meant to feel the weight of privilege and the guilt inherent in a lack of compassion. There could not be a more important message for this moment, when we see the sins and selfishness of the wealthy imperiling the very foundation of our world — and yet, it would play better if it didn’t feel quite so heavy-handed.
While the play and its staging create an exercise in confusion, the cast should not be faulted. The entire ensemble does moving, believable work, particularly given the allegorical trappings they’ve been asked to work with. Brennan is chillingly effective as Inspector Goole: His swift and wry assessment of anyone who crosses his path makes it easy to believe that he could inspire someone to spill their darkest secrets with minimal prompting. He lends Goole a no-nonsense air, with a whiff of dark Scots humor that goes far to place the inspector in the pantheon of great fictional detectives.
Special praise is also due Lianne Harvey, who portrays Sheila Birling, the young daughter who transforms from silly socialite to socially conscious nonconformist. She rattles off bons mots with ease, but is equally adept at calibrating Sheila’s gradual shift toward awareness and compassion. In Harvey’s hands, Sheila feels like a woke version of an Oscar Wilde heroine, with a touch of Olivia Colman mischievousness.
It’s a shame these fine actors don’t have more subtle text to play with, and that their staging often leaves the audience fixated more on what on earth it all means than on their solid performances. An Inspector Calls seems to have lost something in the 27 years since it was first declared a theatrical landmark — or maybe, like the inspector, it was never really there to begin with. B-