By Cynthia Citron
It is touted as thrilling and chilling. But I found it muddled, and it left me befuddled.
The play is “An Inspector Calls.” Unfortunately, he was calling from another country. And another century. With accents so “teddily British” that the play could have really used subtitles.
But it arrived with impeccable credentials as one of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark Productions. It was identified as author J.B. Priestley’s “Classic Thriller” and it was directed by Great Britain’s celebrated Stephen Daldry (best known in this country for the Netflix series “The Crown”, for which he won an Emmy Award in 2018.)
Nevertheless, this play, in my view, was not wonderful. I must acknowledge, however, that the rest of the audience in the packed auditorium of the Bram Goldsmith Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts appeared to enjoy it very much.
It starts out on a virtually empty stage, much too spacious for the oddly designed house plunked in the middle of it. Moreover, the house is completely closed up and through the lighted windows one can see into the dining area where a handful of people, richly dressed in the fashion of the late 19th century, are moving around the room. Their conversation, partially muffled by the closed doors, indicates that they are celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling, daughter of the wealthy family that owns the house, to Gerald Croft, son of an even wealthier industrialist.
Sheila, played by Lianne Harvey, is visible drinking champagne and chatting with her fiance Gerald (Andrew Macklin), her father, Arthur (Jeff Harmer), and her brother Eric (Hamish Riddle), while a gaggle of poorly dressed country folk, identified as Younger Boy, Older Boy, Girl, and Ensemble, wander around the stage with no apparent destination.
Suddenly a stranger appears, calling out to speak to Arthur. Identifying himself as “Inspector Goole” (Liam Brennan), he shows Arthur a photograph of a young woman whom Arthur denies knowing. Prodded by the Inspector, however, Arthur eventually recognizes her as a woman who had worked in one of his mills and he remembers firing her for having taken part in a worker’s strike.
Goole then calls out the others, including Sheila’s mother Sybil (Christine Kavanaugh), who by this time has made a swishing entrance in a bright burgundy dress. And Goole tells them all that the young woman has recently committed suicide by swallowing poison.
Sheila and her mother recognize the woman as a shop-girl with whom they had had an unpleasant experience and Gerald and Eric recognize her as a woman they had each slept with (gasp!). Eric, in fact, had impregnated her, and Gerald had stolen money to help her out (gasp! gasp!).
In addition, Sybil had had a second encounter with the young woman who, pregnant and penniless, had appealed to her, as the head of a charity for troubled women, for help, which Sybil had refused.
After a lot of shouting and running around, the motley group of country folk return and also run around or stand silent and motionless, as if they had a reason to be there.
While the family is prodded to feel guilty about the suicide and their individual roles in it, the Inspector leaves and Arthur goes to the phone to call the chief constable to ask about Goole. The constable advises him that he knows of no Inspector Goole. With a second phone call, to the local hospital, they also learn that no suicide has been admitted there.
At this point, if there are any thrills or chills to be had, they turn up here, at the end of the play. I won’t tell you how it all ended, but I wasn’t particularly thrilled or chilled. But then, what do I know?
I wasn’t thrilled by “Roma” either, even if it does win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, as anticipated.
“An Inspector Calls” can be seen weekdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through February 10 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., in Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (310) 746-4000.