The play starts in Brumley, North England, in the home of a rich industrialist. It is a spring evening in 1912 and the Birling family have just risen from a comfortable family meal, celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Mr. Gerald Croft. The lights shine onto a small set. Four straight-back chairs surround a coffee table in the foreground; to the left there is a large armchair under a lamp. At the back of the stage there is another table, on it a collection of old, leather-bound books and an assortment of drinks. Enter stage right, Sheila (Siobhan Brady) and her young, wild brother, Eric (Sam Clarke), talking, laughing and drinking. They are soon followed by the rest of the party; Arthur and Sybil Birling (Mark McAuley and Gabriella Masding) and Gerald Croft (Aidan Chisholm). Once they are all seated and happily talking, the maid, Edna, (Lydia Johnson) brings in a round of port to finish off a successful evening. So all is well in the Birling household.
A short while later, the bell rings. Edna announces the arrival of an Inspector Goole (Mark Russell). He is here to investigate a suicide case. The suicide of a young, pretty, working class girl, Eva Smith, who killed herself by drinking strong disinfectant. As the plot progresses and thickens the audience is captured up in twist after turn of the inspector’s vigorous questioning. We learn of her previous employment and dismissal at Birling’s factory, of Sheila’s upset at a clothes shop where Eva had found work, which results in Eva being fired again, of Gerald’s “helping hand” once Eva (after changing her name to Daisy Renton), has been reduced to a “different kind of life”. Next to be revealed is Mrs Birling’s prejudiced refusal to give help to Eva from the charity committee of which she was president, simply because the girl, in her desperation, lied about her name and situation. Finally the horrifying truth of Eric’s drunken nights about the town comes out, how he made the same girl pregnant and stole money from his father to support her. The audience watches, helplessly, as Inspector Goole rips apart any walls, any confidence or comfort that this family has established. They fall into disarray, quarrelling, shouting, crying and lapsing into utter despair.
After the inspector has left, Gerald suddenly has an idea that they have been fooled. All expectations are raised suddenly as the inspector turns out to be a fraud. They see a hole through his questioning. What if they’re not all talking about the same girl? What if the “inspector” was pulling their leg and making them believe a collection of girls was actually only one girl. When they call the infirmary and ask about the arrival of a suicide victim that afternoon they are relieved to hear that there was none. All but Sheila and Eric, who are still appalled at all the horrifying truths that have come out, laugh and smile. It seems that, although all is not as it had seemed an hour ago, and although Sheila has broken off (for now) her engagement to Gerald and it seems as if life can go on in the Birling house without public scandal. Suddenly the phone rings. Silence falls on everyone in the room. You could hear a pin drop in the audience. Arthur walks slowly towards the telephone and raises it to his ear. A girl has arrived at the infirmary. A suicide victim, she swallowed a strong disinfectant. A police officer is on his way to ask some questions. All hope is shattered.
The cast were all brilliant and never lost character for a moment. I believe Mark Russell (the inspector) deserves huge praise for his outstanding performance, but huge effort was put in from every one of them and it all paid off. Mr McCarthy and Mr Swift produced an amazing play and so a big thank you to both of them. Overall I think the play was a great success. The whole audience was enraptured from start to end and, when asking people what they thought of the play as they were leaving, one parent told me it was the “greatest, most thrilling performance I have seen in St Columba’s yet.”