Review: What Just Happened?

Jan. 30, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

“An Inspector Calls,” The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Jan. 22 – Feb. 10, 2019

In Brief: Atmospheric, meticulously staged and performed, intellectually stimulating, and all-around sensational – Stephen Daldry’s revival of the J.B. Priestley classic is a revelation. It’s one of the most rewarding productions of this or any other Los Angeles theater season. Do not miss it.

By the time An Inspector Calls debuted in London in 1946, J.B. Priestley had been a mainstay of the British theatre for some 15 years. The fateful drama – about how an upper class family’s casual conduct triggered a working class woman’s suicide – was a big hit in London and on Broadway. Its success cemented the author’s standing as one of the leading playwrights of his day.

Liam Brennan and the cast of "An Inspector Calls" (Photo: Mark Drouet)

Priestley structured the work as a conventional drawing room drama, albeit with a heavy layer of deprecating social commentary. A group of characters discusses events that have occurred before the play starts.

The Birling family at first appears decent enough as they celebrate the daughter’s engagement to an aristocrat. A police inspector shows up at their door to tell them of the suicide of a young woman who once worked for the father’s company. Through his questions, we slowly learn that each of the family members knew the girl and had done something to bring about her downfall.

There’s an unnerving metaphysical twist at the end that adds a further dimension of uncertainty and intrigue. The author wanted the audience to reflect on the events of the night and the Birling family’s reaction. He also wanted to entertain them.

Priestley’s reputation faded in the ’60s and ’70s. In the '80s, several theater companies in England took a second look at the play. These productions resurrected the dramatist’s status, none more so than Stephen Daldry’s 1992 definitive, popular staging for the National Theatre.

Daldry’s inspired take – with its idiosyncratic set and diachronic mise en scène – proved so popular that it’s been brought back several times over the past 25 years. This is the version now thrilling audiences at The Wallis.

Priestley wanted the audience to reflect on the events of the night. He also wanted to entertain them.

What a splendid, impactful, wonderfully theatrical production it is!

It’s easy to see why critics and audiences have embraced Daldry’s vision. His approach was to invoke two eras – the on-the-surface untroubled, parochial London of 1912 that Priestley described and the shattered, war-torn London of 1945, the year that Priestley wrote the play.

The director accomplishes this by surrounding the action that takes place in the Birling family’s stuffy Edwardian home with fragments of sets (cleverly designed by Ian MacNeil) representing the burned out London of WWII. He’s also ordered up lots of moody lighting (designed by Rick Fisher) plus ominous rain, and menacing fog and smoke to heighten the suspense and drama.

Importantly, he’s conceived a clutch of WWII street urchins and ordinary folks who appear from the shadows from time to time as if to comment on the values of an earlier time, even though they never speak at all.

It’s clear that Daldry thought a great deal about the play’s underlying message. Priestley was a lifelong socialist. He intended An Inspector Calls to be a condemnation of the sanctimony of the upper classes and a call for fairness and opportunity for the oppressed working classes. All of this comes through loud and clear in Daldry’s consummate staging.

To be expected, the play is very well acted by a troupe of British professionals, led by Liam Brennan as the Inspector, and Jeff Harmer, Christine Kavanagh, Lianne Harvey and Hamish Riddle as the Birling family.

But Daldry is the real star of the evening. This An Inspector Calls is a treat for the eyes, the ears, the mind, and for all those who love the theater.

“An Inspector Calls,” The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org