A group of actors from the United Kingdom arrived in Boston last week—directors, stage designers, and crew in tow. Everyone had a few days to rest: They had just come from a five-week stint in Chicago, and they were in D.C. before that.
On Thursday night, they assembled at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre for the opening night of their rendition of An Inspector Calls, the thriller written by J. B. Priestley in 1945. Set before the first World War, the show opens in London at the home of the Birlings, a wealthy family celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila (Lianne Harvey), to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin).
The set consists of a brownstone, inside of which everyone sits to have dinner. You can see the actors through the windows, giving the audience the perspective of being on the street looking in. Outside, cobblestone lines the stage, and brownstones only a few feet high in the back set the perspective of a city street. Rain pours down onto the stage, as kids run around outside and lightning flashes.
While conversation inside continues, the front half of the brownstone splits and swings open, revealing the dining room and everyone sitting around the table. This stunt is just the first in a show of impressive and elaborate feats regarding the set. While the brownstone isn’t proportional—the actors had to bend down to get through the front door—it didn’t take away from the fact that the technicality of it added an element of majesty and skill that wasn’t missed.
As Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) enters the stage, an aura of mystery and uncertainty follows him. While the people in the house are wearing fancy and traditional early 20th century clothes, Goole is dressed in a striped suit that looks like it came right out of the 1940s. He often faces the audience, even when he’s speaking to people inside the house. He lets the family know that a young girl has died after drinking disinfectant—even though it has been ruled a suicide, he is investigating what drove her to it.
Sheila comes outside of the house while her father, fiancé, and brother are speaking to the inspector. She asks what the commotion is about, and when she’s told that a girl has died, she whines, “I wish you hadn’t told me.” She follows up by asking if the girl was pretty.
In the beginning of the show, it is very clear that the characters were written in 1945, before the second wave of feminism began. Sheila is incredibly shallow, asking only about looks and caring only about her engagement and her ring. Her mother is cruel, acting very arrogantly about her family’s noninvolvement.
Sheila acts as the family jokester—her father and brother and fiancé are all at least speaking seriously to the inspector, but she comes in and derails every conversation that she joins. She was well played by Harvey, as her voice whined and her movements displayed every annoying trait she had to embody in order to pull off her character.
Sheila’s humanity comes through for the first time when she learns that her fiancé has cheated on her—even then it’s fleeting, but it’s the beginning of Sheila’s character arc that takes her from ditzy idiot at the beginning of the show to most redeeming and sympathetic at the end.
Goole interrogates the family using a photograph of the victim, showing only one person at a time. He asks questions about the family’s connections to shops, jobs, and organizations, drawing connections between everyone in the house and the girl who had died. As the family members begin to turn on each other and themselves, Goole remains calm, only becoming loud when it suits his interest to get something out of someone.
Goole introduces some of the best moments of humor as well, when he breaks out of his serious mystery and makes an off-hand and witty comment. The audience loved it, laughing often throughout the show despite the severity of its subject matter. That’s something that Brennan, who plays Goole, said is different between American and English audiences. The Americans are quicker to laugh, which Brennan says is lovely.
“It’s always a nice shot in the arm when an audience laughs,” he said. “You know that they’re engaged, you know that they’re with you.”
The laughter died down toward the end of the show, as quiet awe and utter confusion filled the theatre. What happened at the breaking point of the show seemed almost supernatural, and the last 15 minutes left everyone with more questions than they would have if the show had been cut a little earlier. If it had been shorter, though, the performance would have lost much of its power. It’s a hard thing to make people like being left in the dark, but as the audience members shuffled out of the theatre, they were raving about the performance and asking each other what they think happened.
Brennan isn’t quite sure what happens either, something that he said he struggled with at first but has been trying to let go of.
“That was probably the biggest challenge initially. Just thinking ‘Oh, I have to try and solve this big mystery,’ but then as I say, at the end of the day the writer doesn’t solve the mystery,” Brennan said. “And I like the fact that the audience leaves with questions.”
Photo Courtesy of Mark Douet