Detective stories have been popular since the first unsolved crime, spawning books, plays, television and film in all manner of genres. With J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (only its second staging at the Shaw Festival since Tony van Bridge directed in 1989) the plot twist makes for a brilliant premise. An engagement party that will bind two rival industrial families together so that (aside from the bliss of married life) “… we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together—for lower costs and higher prices” is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival (conveyed to the sumptuous dining/living area via an elevator) of Inspector Goole (Benedict Campbell seems miscast in the role due in large part to his lack of an accent and tone that could resonate with the likes of storied interrogators from Columbo to Holmes to Poirot).
He’s come to question every member of the celebrating Birlings and their soon-to-be husband for Sheila—Moya O’Connell alone digs deep enough into character to become the pride of the cast; brother-in-law (Eric’s got a dark secret that fuels his descent into the booze; Andrew Bunker finds the anger but not the hopeless despair that’s needed); son-in-law to Sybil (a tad understated in the holier-than-thou department by Mary Haney) and Arthur (considerably more blunt bombast rather than stretched-vowel whining would help Peter Hutt’s portrayal of the moneyed, pompous denialist). Yes, Gerald Croft (rendered with full-disclosure surety in Graeme Somerville’s capable hands) has won the heart of his girl and admiration of his future relatives but before the nightcaps are doled out, all present will be revealed for the brutish dregs of humanity they actually are.
Goole instantly garners rapt attention as he reports the suicide of the young, destitute Eva Smith who’d “swallowed a lot of strong disinfectant” earlier that day. Of course it’s not the grim death that piques the tails-and-gown revelers: the able inquisitor soon establishes that everyone not only knew the deceased but had been collectively responsible for the death. Arthur sacked her for demanding a decent wage, Sheila took offense to being told the truth about her tasteless fashion sense, Gerald took her on as a mistress while courting his intended, Sybil denied her last cry for help when she forced her charitable women’s committee to deny her request and Eric? Best take in the show to discover his dastardly deed.
With Jim Mezon’s vision, the production moves forward at a good clip and composer/pianist Paul Sportelli’s two-theme score (Schumann-esque grand piano for the family, a half-dozen notes for the inspector on behalf of the much-maligned victim of class and circumstance—one tone for each member of the cast) helps reinforce both the mood and numerous ahas.
The brilliance of Priestly’s script is saved for the late frames when Mezon calls for a subtle bit of mechanical business that only a departing apparition could engender. This unforgettable exit clears the way for the final surprise, catching many in the crowd off guard and likely the same comfortable patrons who managed a good laugh at the notion that the actions of the spoiled elite collectively led to the death of their used-up plaything. JWR