A Visit from the Inspector

An Inspector Calls at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre

Naomi MacKay watched An Inspector Calls at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre – running until Saturday 18 February.

I have a confession to make about An Inspector Calls. With only a vague recollection of the film version, I thought it might be rather dull – a play written in the 1940s, set in the First World War – and it’s on the GCSE English Literature syllabus (sorry English teachers everywhere!). It has boring written all over it – but how wrong could I be?!

Gripping from the very first scene – as (real) rain pours down on the stage, the mists descend and the air raid sirens wail – this production is anything but boring.

The opening finds us joining the wealthy Birling family as they celebrate their daughter Sheila’s engagement to the equally well-off Gerald Croft. But as they celebrate, they have no idea that a visitor is going to tear their privileged world apart and expose dark secrets and lies that could be their undoing.

There’s an air of menace that pervades the production from the off – the Edwardian house balancing on stilts above the bleak urban (1940s wartime) landscape, the music and sound effects – all help to convey that despite the champagne and fine China, all is not as wonderful in this world of wealth and privilege as we might expect.

Inspector Goole (Ian Brennan) enters quietly and calmly, silently sipping a cup of tea before he begins his dismantlement of the Girling’s world. As he brings news of Eva Smith, who has committed suicide – who, from this world of wealth and privilege, is responsible for her downfall. And will they learn from it?

The characters prove grotesque in their lack of caring and responsibility – with only Sheila (Chloe Orrock) and son Eric (George Rowlands) really starting to see the error of their ways by the end of the play.

One student in the audience at Aylesbury – rather suitably for Valentine’s Day – sported a giant I love Eric badge, and it is easy to see why. George plays him wonderfully – the comical, yet wayward son, who drinks too much and, it transpires, is despised by his father. It would be easy to overplay the role and make him a caricature, but George doesn’t allow that to happen.

Ever present is the servant Edna, wonderfully played by Frances Campbell, who conveys much without ever saying a word.

It’s a sorry tale, but the production, interjected with touches of humour, and enough flashes, bangs and fight scenes to keep the hordes of teenagers in the audience entertained, brings what could seem a rather outdated tale well and truly into the 21st century.

There are some powerful messages that hold true in the 2020s, just as they did in the 1940s, as the Welfare State was coming into being – that those with wealth and privilege should be caring for the have-not’s in society – particularly poignant during the cost-of-living crisis.

As Inspector Goole himself concludes: ‘‘We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’

If you have a teenager studying the play for GCSE, this production is a must – although you certainly don’t need a young companion to enjoy it.

Sadly, the show is sold out at Aylesbury (it may be worth checking for returns though) – but if you get the chance to see it elsewhere, it’s not to be missed.

Photo: Tristram Kenton