Time has been good to J.B. Priestley’s magnificent piece of socialist polemic, in the sense that not only is it absolutely on topic for the social issues of today, with the government trying to dial back the amount of benefits that can be claimed by those with long-term sickness and disability, but it’s also on the curriculum for GCSE Eng Lit, which is being sat on Monday 20th May, so the audience should have been packed with sixteen year olds eager to absorb the piece in performance.
Mine was a somewhat harsh critic – less tolerant than we parents of the traditional shortcomings of student drama, which were very much in evidence. Why was Mrs Birling wearing a weird blonde curly wig, more suitable if she had been cast as Dolly Parton than a pre-WWI matriarch? Why had her dress apparently wandered in from a Jane Austen adaptation? Why was Sheila Birling’s blouse constructed of a diaphanous white scarf wound round her top half? Such niggling questions can intrude on one’s appreciation of the dramatic talents of the cast, and are worth addressing.
On the whole it was a good and interesting performance, with one very serious flaw. The beautifully constructed exposition of the way in which each Birling had separately contributed to the destruction of the life and happiness of the unfortunate Eva Smith was performed clearly and passionately and tellingly and sympathetically. (Another niggling lacuna in production values was the failure to provide reviewers with a cast list, so I have no idea who any of these people were.) The chap who played Arthur Birling was rather good, I thought, though his chosen accent and voice did rather fatally remind one of Michael Palin’s various northern dads in Monty Python (Cardboard? Luxury!) and similarly the self-loathing Eric and the smug and clever Gerald were effectively brought before us. Mrs Birling was suitably cold and unrepentant – perhaps the most disagreeable of the family.
But here we come to the serious flaw, which was the young lady who played Sheila Birling. She was beautiful, and she was passionate, but she was (I’m guessing) French, and her pronunciation, while charming, was about 60% comprehensible (not assisted by the unsympathetic acoustic of this big brick box of a building) and often rather muted. This in itself was not such a serious problem as the complete lack of development in her portrayal of Sheila, the character who arguably travels the most significant emotional journey in the play.
The interesting innovation was the casting of Inspector Goole as a woman. [Warning: spoiler alert - Ed.] One of the disquieting revelations about the mysterious and omniscient Inspector Goole is that he arrives and exposes the complicity of the Birlings in Eva Smith’s destruction several hours before said destruction actually happens – the only flaw in an otherwise brilliant construction, it can leave the audience wondering why, if he knew all this in advance of her suicide, he didn’t attempt to stop her drinking disinfectant instead of spending the evening needling and harrowing the Birlings. This version subtly suggests that Goole could be a projection of the dying girl herself. It was a strong, indeed, commanding, performance.