Review: An Inspector called, and thankfully left

A classic play, a respected theatre group, and a fabulous venue housing Lincoln’s cultural crowd. Surely these were the perfect ingredients for a riveting performance? Sadly not.

On entering the Bishop Greaves Theatre, the reception was warm and the ambience sophisticated, as we all waited to delve into the Common Ground Theatre Company’s take on the eerie realm of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.

Taking my seat, the classical music created an appropriately nostalgic feel, and the set looked fitting for the aristocratic 1912 setting of the play. Resplendent with mahogany furniture, grand family portraits and the latest 20th Century equipment and artefacts, it was clear that a great deal of thought and research had gone into the presentation of the play.

Likewise with the costume design, every character’s attire was a clear statement of their societal standing. The men wore heavy tuxedos and the women dressed in expensive dresses, showing their wealth. Edna the housemaid wore a drab work dress, and the Inspector was in slightly less ostentatious attire that still confirmed his self-assured nature.

It only took the first line to be spoken for me to realise that the setting’s relevance was to be diluted by some of the performances that were to be endured for the next two hours.

The play, written in war-time 1944, focuses around an evening with the prosperous middle-class Birling family as the mysterious Inspector Goole interrupts helps them come to terms with their individual involvement with the suicide of young, working class, factory girl Eva Smith.

A retrospective piece, Priestly uses dramatic irony to demonstrate the ignorance of the family, making amusing references to the “absolutely unsinkable” Titanic and the thought that there “isn’t a chance of war”.

Set in the north-midlands town of Brumley, it seemed peculiar that the family members spoke in an exceedingly refined manner, however that could be overlooked as the status of the family was clearly displayed.

What couldn’t be ignored was the character Mr Birling, played by Maurice Raphael, and his unconvincing attempt at a northern accent. It was inconsistent, off-putting and sounded more of a comic impression than a serious characterising tool.

Frequent forgetfulness didn’t help the clumsy running of the performance. It seemed Raphael simply couldn’t start a sentence without mispronouncing or forgetting his words. Tediously, this was a constant battle each time he began his lines, and when he wasn’t actually speaking, he struggled to remain in character, probably trying to recall his next lines.

As for the play’s youngsters – Eric, Sheila, and Gerald Croft – adolescent performing was to conduct the stage with melodramatic mannerisms, spurious shouting and stomping around the set like a GCSE drama group, thus the tension and wit of Priestley’s script was completely shattered.

On a more positive note, Mary Scott gave a compelling performance as Mrs Birling who, through her cold-hearted imperiousness, reveals her son to be a main culprit in Smith’s suicide. Her facial expressions were excellent and her domineering posture made a great match for the Inspector.

The presence of Inspector Goole was particularly ominous, helped by the darkening of the lights upon his entrance and his stoic posture. Christopher Adams’ portrayal of Goole was commendable, and I found myself captivated by his performance. His diction was clear and his timing superb. If all the performances were this good it would have made for an excellent show.

The use of the stage was worthy of credit, as there was scarcely a visually-empty moment. There was constant interaction from most of the characters when not speaking, and each actor had a stage presence that couldn’t be ignored.

As the Inspector left the stage with a family in ruins, a thunder clap effect struck and crassly left the family portrait with a messy lightning strobe running through it, which, from where I was sitting, inadvertently summed up this disappointing performance.

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