It’s been more than 25 years since Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls made its London debut. Thanks to Ian MacNeil’s astonishing set that paints a vivid picture of London in 1912, post-war society and modern day, the play continues to wow audiences around the world. An Inspector Calls opens tonight at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall and runs through December 23rd.
We were interested in its most famous technical achievement, the centerpiece house of the well-heeled Birlings family, which almost becomes a character itself in the mystery when it rises in the air and tilts, spilling the contents of the house.
Iain Gillie, who has been involved with An Inspector Calls since its debut at the National Theatre in 1992, serving as its production manager for much of that time, took our call.
“The team presented this quite ambitious design and the National Theatre likes to see that kind of ambition,” he says. “We costed the show up and the special elements were easy enough to identify. One was a rigged cobbled floor that was intricate in that it was going to require us to make individual cobbles to the tune of about 10,000.”
Then there was an Edwardian House on stilts. It opened up in the front with enormous doors. At the climax of the show, the house tips forward and everything in the house falls out on the stage.
“The climactic tipping of the house is really an extraordinary thing to behold,” Gillie says. “We created a part of the show that really didn’t exist in the script. It’s the part where the Inspector delivers his moral speech and the family is left to deal with the aftermath of what was uncovered.”
Two other important elements were a false Victorian proscenium arch, which was another enormous piece of scenery; and a painted sky cyclorama.
“We were looking at the show and we thought it was going to be too expensive (around $200,000) but we couldn’t have really gotten rid of any of the elements,” he said. “We had lots of conversations with the National and they finally signed off and we went ahead and built the show.”
A fifth element that is just as important to the production, and one that created the most difficulty, was adding rain.
“We needed live rain on stage and there’s a whole waterproofing aspect to it,” Gillie says. “There’s always a risk of damaging the theater or the electric, and while this was the most complicated aspect, it was also the cheapest to pull off.”
The way the rain worked was water sprayed through various-size nozzles from an overhead pipe, with some water directed down and some aimed to bounce off a piece of guttering. This was lit from the side to make it sparkle while keeping the surroundings dark.
The genius of the rain was so successful that the design team was inundated with calls from other theater designers from around the world looking for advice on how to do something similar.
Although there were a couple of leaks at first, and set mistakes made, things were perfected quickly.
“The first performance back in 1992 didn’t go so well and we thought maybe we made a mistake here, but the second performance was one of the most electric I’ve ever seen and we created an amazing piece of work,” Gillie says. “It became a huge hit on the West End and then subsequently we went to Australia, Japan, ran on Broadway for a year and there was an American tour.”
It continues to run around the world, though some changes to the set have been made. Most significantly, the false Victorian proscenium arch was replaced because it presented the set from fitting in some theaters since most had their own arch, and the floor was switched to a single rake. However, that same house on stilts used in the first production is still in use today, only with a great deal of love and renovations through the years to keep it fresh.
An Inspector Calls
November 20 — December 23, 2018
Details and tickets
Each time An Inspector Calls goes to a new theater, three technical people who are on the road with the production generally pull up on a Monday morning and unload the trucks with 10 stage hands, five electricians and a lighting person, and by Monday evening, the sets are built, the lights are focused and the next morning everything is tested and ready for the show to go on that night.
“We’re really good at moving the show around now because we’ve done it for so long,” Gillie says. “The biggest issue we are dealing with in DC are the pyrotechnics. When this great house collapse happens, we have a sea of pyrotechnic explosions and flashes and the regulations here are slightly stricter than they are in the UK. But it’s nothing we can’t work out.”
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One challenge that the set designers have dealt with over the years concerns a spiral staircase used by the inspector at the beginning of the show.
“Over the years, we have added three separate safety catches and a closed-circuit television so there’s no possible way the stairs can fall over,” Gillie says. “There was time early on when they have looked like they might fall, which is not good for an actor’s confidence.”
When the curtain first opens, one thing Gillie knows for sure from seeing the play hundreds of times is that audiences are going to be in awe.
“What we knew when we first made the show and it’s still true today, every time I watch an opening night the hairs on my neck stand on end,” Gillie says. “It’s incredibly cinematic and when people see the production, they will see why Stephen Daldry has moved into TV and movies on a grand scale. They will just sit back and know it’s going to be great.”