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by JB Priestley
Arthur Birling : Richard Neal
Directed by Barry Baynton
BARRY Baynton is well-known as an accomplished actor but, in his role as director for Wimborne drama, he suggested the JB Priestley play An Inspector Calls as the autumn production. Arriving in the Tivoli Theatre it was immediately obvious that this drama would be something special as the principal players, beautifully dressed for dinner in formal attire were already on stage at an elegant dining table and chatting animatedly. The master and mistress of the house, beautiful daughter and her fiancé plus the handsome son and heir, waited on by the respectful housekeeper, all enjoying an engagement party. Into this privileged gathering came an uninvited guest bringing revelations which would shake the family to the very core, challenging their unity, revealing weaknesses and laying bare prejudices.
As Arthur Birling, the epitome of a successful business man in 1912, Richard Neal captures the bluster and social-climbing works boss to perfection. Wife Sybil – Chrissie Neal is perfectly cast as the snobbish and hard-hearted woman – and daughter Sheila (the ideal part for Tracey Nicholls) together with son Eric make up the perfect family - but are they? Watch out for young David Beddard who plays the shallow and gauche Eric, appearing to physically sag as his sins come back to haunt him, a fine characterisation. Another recent addition to Wimborne Drama, John Sivewright also excels as husband-to-be Gerald, a man with guilty secrets. And what of the policeman who calls with news of a suicide which impacts on everyone in the group? As Inspector Goole it is impossible to use enough superlatives about Stuart Glossop, he commands the stage and is quite mesmerising. Whether questioning intently, shouting forcefully or merely looking on quizzically, this pivotal role could not have been better chosen. In fact, this is a stellar cast and one which does justice to a true classic of 20th century British theatre. Little wonder that the capacity audience – splendid to see so many young theatre-goers – gave every actor a warm ovation.
All credit to Barry Baynton for choosing such a challenging play which poses questions about values, integrity, honesty and self-satisfaction which are as relevant today as when the drama was set, prior to World War 1. It is too late now to wonder at the identity of the mysterious Inspector but you can see Wimborne Drama’s next production Present Laughter next February. Don’t miss it
Patt Scott, Stour and Avon Magazine
THIS play, by Wimborne Drama, is about an upper-crust English family whose dinner is interrupted by a police inspector who brings news that a girl known to everyone present has dies in suspicious circumstances. It seems any or all could have a hand in her death. But who is the mysterious inspector and what can he want of them?
The cast is on stage from the opening of the doors and can be seen to be enjoying their dinner before the play starts. This talented cast kept the pace up, which helped keep the audience’s attention in a rather wordy play.
Richard Neal as Arthur Birling was perfect as the patriarch, ably supported by wife Sybil (Chrissie Neal). John Sivewright (Gerald Croft) and Verena Smith-Maurer (Edna) both put in good performances. David Beddard as Eric Birling came into his own in act two and was totally believable.
The outstanding performances of the evening came from Tracey Nicholls (Sheila Birling) and Stuart Glossop (Inspector Goole). Both of them have extremely expressive faces and neither stop acting, whether directly involved in the conversation or not.
Well done to director Barry Baynton for a superb evening.
Lyn Richell, Daily Echo
IT is easy to suppose that everyone knows J. B. Priestley’s mid-twentieth century classic when one has, as I have, taught it countless times as a G.C.S.E. text. What was clear, however, from the response of an almost capacity audience at Wimborne Drama’s opening night was that there are many yet to encounter its cleverly-plotted revelations, right down to the closing moments. Last night’s performance was played to rapt attention throughout, including from the substantial element made up of school parties, the latter – sceptics, please note – conducting themselves immaculately throughout. The production deserved this sort of attentiveness, as it did the warm response at its close.
As the audience members took their seats, the cast were already in muted full flow, the celebratory dinner party that provides the immediate context for the play’s events drawing to its contented, even self-satisfied conclusion. Set designer Colin Pile had made very effective use of the Tivoli stage, closing it down to create a suitable intimacy while still facilitating the actors’ movement: the partly-closed red velvet curtains framed a dining room with whose wallpaper it also blended effectively. This, with the selectively detailed furnishing, instantly and convincingly evoked the play’s Edwardian setting and the atmosphere of material well-being, complemented by Lizzie Peters’ equally evocative choice of costumes.
The transition as the houselights faded was smooth and drew us into the conversation, orchestrated at this stage by Richard Neal’s assured head of the household, Arthur Birling: his physical presence and easy magnanimity were completely convincing and, as was the case with the other members of the cast, established a clear picture of the cosy world into which the eponymous “Inspector” subsequently intrudes. There can be a temptation with each of the Birling family members and daughter Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald Croft, himself son of a rival business owner, to overplay those elements that are subsequently dissected, which almost guarantees completely alienating the audience from the outset. Under Barry Baynton’s intelligent, well-judged direction, any such temptation is completely resisted, thereby laying a very strong foundation for what is to come, facilitating an audience response that is all the more engaged and willing to moderate disapproval and condemnation with varying degrees of sympathy.
Each of the other members of the family was equally well-cast, every characterisation solidly rooted in the text. I’m not always keen on reviews that checklist cast members but, in this case, the very even ensemble playing warrants such mention: Chrissie Neal’s Sybil, wife and mother, was comfortably self-confident and latterly resistant to criticism throughout; son Eric (David Beddard) was appropriately “squiffy”, without this quality being overplayed, his edginess suitably louche and his particularly demeaning journey into self-confrontation played with pleasing control; as daughter Sheila, whose engagement party we are seeing, Tracey Nicholls gave another finely-judged portrayal, her characterisation based on an entirely plausible honesty and openness. One of the key features of Priestley’s writing here is the growing generational division, arising out of the varying degrees of resistance to or acceptance of criticism and the idea that there is another, better route forward for society, and all four performances did much to reveal this growing rift, again allowing Priestley’s own words to do the work without bludgeoning the audience into “getting the message”.
Perhaps the least naturally suited to his role was John Sivewright as a rather Aubrey Beardsley-like Gerald, his physical resemblance to Eric somewhat diminishing the differences in attitude and social conformity that are there in the text. This notwithstanding, however, John grew in stature as events unfolded, his increasingly smug and apparently impressive revelation of the “hoax” played convincingly and his thorough approach to the role strongly in evidence throughout. As Edna, the family’s maid, Verena Smith-Maurer did exactly what is required with such roles, again resisting any temptation to build up the role, her quiet subservience illustrating exactly, as the actress implicitly recognises in her programme profile, less can indeed be more.
Into this affluent coterie intrudes Inspector Goole, whose first entrance was, without giving too much away, unfussily effective. This is, arguably one of the most attractive male roles in British 20th century theatre and, while there are certain key characteristics that must lie at the heart of any portrayal, it allows for a degree of variation in exactly how it is played. Stuart Glossop’s Inspector allows himself more aggression than is sometimes the case but his depiction is sustained and consistent throughout and he worked well in his manipulation of and responses, collective and individualised, to those he has come to question. In this, he was helped by the fact that the other cast members had played the section prior to his arrival without succumbing to any temptation to anticipate and thus dilute the upheavals that his arrival brings.
Well-paced throughout, albeit that there were one or two “first night” moments when the actors’ assurance slipped very briefly after the interval (and the momentum of the production was such that I would happily have foregone this break), Barry Baynton’s production remained imaginatively faithful to Priestley’s text and stage craftsmanship. Priestley does at times put into the mouths of his characters, and especially of the Inspector, philosophical, social, even political pronouncements and it is to the director’s and the actors’ additional credit that these lines emerged naturally out of their characterisations without any sense of authorial or self-conscious obtrusion. I know that many of the students in the audience came without having read or become acquainted with the play and the teacher in me would have been further delighted that they were been treated to a clear, honest production that brought to life each and every character and clearly delineated the relationships and growing tensions between them, in this way allowing the play’s concerns to emerge with clarity.
If there are seats still available for the remaining performances, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you go along for a very, very good and thoroughly professional evening’s theatre.
Phil Vivian - Scene One