Therry Dramatic Society
The Arts Theatre
Until 24 Aug 2019

Review by John Wells

Life is wonderful for Arthur Birling: he is loaded, he has status (a former mayor and a magistrate, no less) and he and his beaming wife Sybil are hosting a dinner party celebrating the engagement of their beautiful daughter Shelia to Gerald, the son of another well-heeled industrialist. All is golden in this cocoon of smug wealth until Inspector Goole comes calling, cracking open the Birling family’s security and sense of well-being. Inspector Goole insinuates himself into the family’s affairs, stubbornly questioning each one of them, as he investigates the suicide of a young woman. All of those present at dinner have some connection to the dead girl, and Goole’s methodical revelations and take-downs reveal secrets and deceptions.

Directing J.B. Priestley’s unwieldy and challenging morality play “An Inspector Calls” is a difficult juggling act. The play is part murder mystery, part supernatural thriller, and part socialist polemic; these genres sit uneasily together. At its best, this play – and indeed this production - has moving moments of emotional weight, a delicious and righteous sense of attacking privilege, and an entertaining spookiness. But the political message is heavy-handed, the dialogue is frequently clunky, and the play hovers close to silly melodrama.

Angela Short’s direction is uncomplicated and mostly well-paced, but the straight rendering moves along without a sense of how Priestley’s passionate pleas for equality and compassion speak to a modern audience. Nailing down the correct theatrical tone is fiendishly difficult in this play, and this production does not quite achieve the right balance between the action and the underlying message.

The cast is reliable, but does not cohere well. There is solid work by the Birling clan - Patrick Clements (Arthur), Rebecca Kemp (Sybil) and Dylan O’Donnell (Eric, the drunkenly giddy idiot son) – without ever really hitting the right emotional pitch. Most impressive is Lani Gerbi as Sheila, the moral fulcrum of the play. Gerbi (with a perfect, unerring accent) is emotionally precise, complex and compelling to watch. Gerbi is convincing in showing that Sheila may have learned the terrible lessons the Inspector reveals. Mark Drury gives a sound performance, but does not capture Inspector Goole’s blend of hard-boiled cross-examiner and unnerving spectral presence. Drury’s policeman is too officious and bombastic.

This is an effective and satisfactory amateur production.