Seeing An Inspector Calls at the Bolton Octagon recently left me with mixed feelings. I’d seen the play before and studied it back in my school days, so I went to see the production, directed by the theatre’s artistic director David Thacker, with a familiar anticipation and enthusiasm.
This play is perhaps J.B. Priestley’s best known work, with memorable and distinctive characters, truly something for any actor to get their teeth into. Speaking to Thacker about his vision for the production gave me an interesting insight: “All I try to do is express the playwright’s intentions as well as possible, as if it were a world premiere.” To a limited extent, this production felt true to Priestley’s words.
There were times during the show when, although the cast was good, I had a distinct feeling that lines had been spoken a thousand times before and therefore lacked spontaneity. Although the affected communication style and speech which is often attributed as typical of the class and era was carried off well, it sometimes came across as forced.
I’ve always thought that an actor’s job is to bring a script to life, to lift the words from the page, as if they have never been spoken before. On occasion, the words felt regurgitated and over-rehearsed; the actors might as well have had scripts in-hand and read the play out loud.
The stand-out performance for me was that of Mawgan Gyles’ portrayal of Eric Birling – this fine actor fitted into the part perfectly. He brought a conflicted character to life with aplomb and, as an audience member, I needed little imagination: Mawgan was Eric. To my mind, that’s what good acting is all about.
The set was deliberately simplistic and, although there were echoes of the upper-class, it didn’t quite feel real. The audience was swept into that room among the characters, which compensated to an extent, though the set was not how I would imagine the social-climbing Birling’s residence to be – ostentatious and sophisticated. Thacker’s choice to bring the play to life in-the-round was nonetheless a wise one.
This production’s cast, as well as its director, are experienced and renowned, allowing for an often polished and enjoyable theatrical experience. Thacker commented on his casting decisions: “Finding actors who were versatile, talented, and had a broad enough range to be in both productions was key.”
The nature and extent of the cast’s versatility and range remains to be seen. From October 10 until November 2, 2013, the core cast members of An Inspector Calls will appear in the Octagon’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, also directed by Thacker.
Overall, An Inspector Calls was not as I had hoped – at times lacklustre and flat, but with moments of inspired, polished delivery, particularly from Gyles. I look ahead to the Octagon’s next production with cautious optimism.
Review by Andrew Urquhart
Photos: Ian Tilton
What: An Inspector Calls
When: until October 5, 2013
Where: Octagon Theatre, Bolton
More info: www.octagonbolton.co.uk