An Inspector Calls (review)

WHAT possesses teachers to take hundreds of teenage students to a play at a professional theatre and then allow them to eat their dinners through the first half of the production?

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 20th March 2012, 11:38 pm

It caused considerable irritation, and made the dialogue barely audible, to paying members of the public wanting to enjoy JB Priestley’s classic thriller, An Inspector Calls, at the Waterside.

Tuesday night was marred, at least by those of us sitting towards the back of the stalls, by inappropriate laughing and clapping, the rustling of endless noisy crisp packets, the munching of packed teas, the whooshing of fizzy drinks being opened, mobile phones pinging, girls chattering and general rummaging about in a variety of school bags. Couldn’t they have eaten before entering the auditorium?

Until last night I had no idea that Priestley had written the play as a comedy but the predominantly young audience obviously knew better. They found moments of tension and melodrama ridiculously funny and, astonishingly, there was wild applause for scenes of violence.

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Priestley’s drama was supposed to be a cautionary tale about social conscience and an appeal for humanity to care for others. This was, quite clearly, a lesson lost on the school parties who cared nothing for the others around them who had come hoping to enjoy a night of quality theatre and not become part of a school outing.

Tom Mannion’s enigmatic Inspector Goole had the misfortune of fighting a noisy audience who sniggered as soon as they heard his Scottish brogue. He gave a commanding performance which, at times, took on the tone of a chastising head teacher trying to control an unruly assembly.

We’re led to believe a girl has killed herself and each member of a rich industrialist’s family played their own small part in her demise. The drama takes the form of a cross examination which, at the denouement, takes on a completely different tone.

Director Stephen Daldry’s award-winning production has been touring to great acclaim and it was disappointing that the grown-ups in the audience had to contend with students studying the story as a GCSE set text.

There were fine performances from Geoff Leesley and Karen Archer as factory boss Arthur Birling and his wife Sybil (at least you could hear Geoff’s booming voice above the cattle grazing in the stalls) while Kelly Hotten and Henry Gilbert as the couple’s children Sheila and Eric, plus John Sackville as Sheila’s fiancé Gerald, struggled with their composure and the unexpected reactions from the audience.

Ian McNeil’s stunning set closets the Edwardian family from the harsh realities of life. Priestley, eager to make the point that history, and man’s frailty, has a nasty habit of repeating itself, sets the story both just before the First World War and during the Second.

If there is any lesson to be learned from tonight it’s that theatre bosses need to ban school bags and ensure school parties are consigned to the matinees so that ticket-buying adults can concentrate during evening performances.

It was a great production, as always, but ruined by the inconsiderate actions of a few.