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A CurtainUp DC Review

"We don't live alone. We are members of one society. 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. Good night."
inspector call
Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole (Photo by Mark Douet.
"Brilliant" is a word Brits use with such frequency that it has lost some of its punch which is unfortunate. Especially when a piece of art, a play for instance, comes along that deserves to be regarded as the work of genius. Such is the production of J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center. Beginning with playwright J.B. Priestley's script, the design team and the actors, under the infallible and inspired direction of Stephen Daldry are, well, brilliant as in this is something truly extraordinary.

Whether you classify J. B. Priestley's 1945 play as melodrama or thriller is immaterial. As disclosure after disclosure is revealed, the story of the Birling family gets murkier and murkier. All of them are complicit in the misfortune of a young girl in trouble.

Priestley's message is clear: the Birlings represent the old order, England before and between world wars 1 and 2, when the gentry or those who aspired to it, felt secure in their role in society, their class. Mr. Birling, (Jeff Harmer), a rough and ready business man, a pillar of society in his own estimation, whose mantra is "low wages and high profits" anticipates an honor for his "good" works as Alderman and Magistrate. He regards socialism as anathema; Priestley, an ardent left winger, disagrees.

It is no coincidence that Director Stephen Daldry first chose to revive An Inspector Calls twenty-five years ago while arch-Conservative Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister when the dichotomy between the Haves and Have-Nots, class warfare, was rife. In a quirk of fate, another show that Daldry brought to life, the stage version of Billy Elliot, that takes a sharp stab at Thatcherism, (link to my review) is playing concurrently at Washington's Signature Theatre. Plus, in the age of Trump, Priestley's message rings as true as ever.

A fancy red velvet curtain hangs across the proscenium arch at the Harman Center when the play begins with a little boy walking down the steps of the auditorium, across one of the front rows, in front of a distinctly English red telephone booth, and on to the stage where he tries to lift the heavy and symbolic curtain to reveal what is to come. Rain is pouring from the heavens, there's a mist (somewhat reminiscent of England's pea-soup thick fogs that existed before coal was banished as a heating fuel) so that the exterior, the real world is rather bleak and so is the future. Inside the Birling's lavish home, a remarkable construct but more about that later, the hosts, dressed in tails and long gowns (Mr. Birling, Mrs. Birling, their feckless son Eric and their daughter Sheila) are celebrating Sheila's engagement to Gerald Croft who is also present. This may or may not be a love match but it is certainly a business deal between the Birlings and the Crofts. And then, as in all old fashioned thrillers, there is a knock on the door.

Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan in a mesmerizing performance) has arrived. The Birlings have a lot to hide but Goole's sharp perception reveals bit by bit, in much the same way an onion gets peeled, layer upon layer of truth. With each revelation as it unfolds in what in movie terms is called slow disclosure, all the Birlings and Sheila's fiancé too are complicit in the demise of a young lady. Their guilt and remorse is minimal but, as Goole (Priestley) points out their world is crumbling. At this point, the set by Scenic and Costume Designer Ian MacNeil, literally falls apart in a stunning coup de théatre, a very memorable image. Ok, so it's not subtle but it works magnificently. So does Stephen Warbeck's music which captures th moment. Another memorable moment comes towards the end of the 105-minute, intermissionless performance when Goole addresses the audience directly, delivering the quote above. But that's not the end. The Birlings and the audience are in for yet another surprise.

The cast is uniformly excellent from Diana Payne-Meyers's Edna, the Birling's maid who sees and hears everything while remaining silent. She anticipates the family's every wish/need whether it is a cup of tea or a chair to sit on. She even rolls out a red oriental carpet for Mrs. Birling. And when not needed to perform a chore, she knits. Christine Kavanaugh is suitably imperious as Mrs. Birling, Hamish Riddle evokes empathy as the much-derided Eric Birling, and Lianne Harvey's Sheila Birling, while hard to hear at times in the acoustically-challenged Harman Center, portrays a misleading sweetness and naiveté. But it is Liam Brennan's Inspector Goole who, as the part demands, shows us right from wrong in a performance that is . . . brilliant.

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An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley
Directed by Stephen Daldry
tor, Julian Webber
Scenic and Costume Design, Ian MacNeil
Lighting Design, Rick Fisher
Music by Stephen Warbeck
Sound Design, Sebastian Frost
Associate Director (Tour), Charlotte Peters
Cast: Liam Brennan (Inspector Goole); Christine Kavanagh (Mrs. Birling); Jeff Harmer (Mr. Birling); Andrew Macklin (Gerald Croft); Lianne Harvey (Sheila Birling); Hamish Riddle (Eric Birling); Diana Payne-Myers (Edna); Chris Barritt, Adam Collier, Chloe Orrock, Beth Tuckey (Ensemble); David G. Curry III alternating with Michael Neyland (Younger Boy); Holden DuBois alternating with Aksel Moeller (Older Boy); Craig Allen, Madalaina D'Angelo, Acacia Danielson, Richard Fiske, William Goblirsch, Rosemary Regan (Supernumeraries).
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. Shakespeare Theatre/Harman Center November 20 to December 23, 2018, then on tour:
January 22 to February 10, 2019, LA.
February 19 to March 10, 2019, Chicago.
March 14 to 24, 2019, Boston.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, November 26, 2018 performance.

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