Review – An Inspector Calls – The Novello Theatre

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I was highly intrigued by the thought experiments built into JB Priestly’s Time and the Conways, and thus was quite enthused that an opportunity to see another play he’d written nearly at the same time came just a few months later. An Inspector Calls is quite the warhorse, and I’d always assumed it was a lumbering beast very much of the Mousetrap variety – a heavyhanded mystery designed to please the punters.

What it is is sort of Shaw meets Albee with a heavy dose of George Grosz. The family at the center of this tale is the moralistic nouveau riche (circa 1910) who, in rising above their moderate origins, seemed to have become even more harsh and hateful to those they left behind; they’re joined by a young man of old money whose looking to marry the wealthy, flighty daughter.

And then, well, you know, “an inspector calls.” He’s researching the death of a young woman, though, of course, none of these nice people killed anyone! Or caused them to kill themselves. Or … well … maybe they’re not so nice as they like to think. Or maybe the girl never existed! Or maybe the inspector is just a figment of their collective imaginations! Really, who knows, but if you saw Time and the Conways you’ll have some idea of the kind of shenanigans that might be going on. It all makes for a very drama-filled two hours and guarantees lots of thoughtful post-show conversations on “what really happened.”

In some ways this script is so tight and powerful it seems likely to transcend any particular casting decisions, and yet I feel I have to single out the matriarch (Sandra Duncan) for providing the kind of bravura performance that leads me to declare London the English language theater capitol of the world. The woman packs more into a sniff than lesser beings throw into hours of simulated hysteria. Watching her go from utterly composed and coldly indifferent to the suffering of her lessers to childlike to positively demented is really just an incredible treat. I’d imagine this role would be one actresses would really fight for; but maybe it’s just that Ms. Duncan really knows how to own a stage.

I’m also thoroughly enchanted by the potentially heavy-handed set (by Ian MacNeil), which my husband felt too obviously represented the family’s fate. However, I adored its doll-house like proportions on the bizarrely perspectived stage (giant streetlamps in front, tiny ones and a truly wee little house in back), and I was thrilled when it opened down the middle to let the story take place inside. It made it even more fun that it continued to be a damned small house for full sized adults to be standing in. And then near the end, ZOW! I have to say (without saying) that I’ve never actually seen a set do quite that before. Finally, at the very end, the entire, utterly corrupt family is back in the house with their heads poking out the tiny windows, all laughing hysterically – like a scene out of a painting of the Weimar years. (The use of mixed semi-historical Edwardian clothes with 40s costumes on the non-family members just didn’t work for me at all, but, you know, with such solid acting, I couldn’t really get that worked up about it other than to note that it was a pigheaded decision that thankfully didn’t keep me from enjoying the show.) And, W00t, less than two hours running time, thank YOU Mr. Priestly for making it possible for me to go to a show on a school night.

Brief props have to go to LastMinute.com for giving me this show and a dinner for a mere 20 quid a pop. Dinner was good but I am miffed at the restaurant for “upgrading” J to a large beer and thus doubling the cost of our drinks bill (and then saying he should have sent it back instead of admitting any fault in assuming a large). That said, the Novello upgraded us to FLOOR seats when I was only expecting crappy 2nd balcony, so any foul taste in my mouth was utterly gone the minute I picked up the tickets, and by tomorrow all I’ll remember was what a top-notch show it was – really and truly what every person who comes to London and wants to see “a good show” ought to be seeing. I guess we’ll say that this one is recommended – it’s not life-changing but it sure was a good night out!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009. An Inspector Calls continues at the Novello through November 14th.)

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2 Responses to “Review – An Inspector Calls – The Novello Theatre”

  1. Peter Wilson Says:

    I’m the producer of An Inspector Calls, and just wanted to clarify the reasoning behind the mix of period costumes.
    Priestley wrote the play in 1945/6. Essentially it blames the unbridled capitalism of 1910/12 for causing two world wars.
    So the Inspector is dressed in a demob suit and raincoat, as are the extras and the small children, and the Birlings are dressed in pre-WW1 costumes, in their 1912 house which has burst through the 1945 cobbled street.
    The world of 1945 and the world of 1912 are absolutely central to the message of the play.
    Anyway, what a great review. Carry on enjoying London theatre!

  2. Guest Review – Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews London Theater reviews by an American expat – on a budget « Review – An Inspector Calls – The Novello Theatre […]

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