Arts Review Singapore Theatre Wild Rice

★★★★☆ Review: An Inspector Calls by Wild Rice

Social commentary on the 1% subverts the traditional mystery.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Glen Goei)9
Script (J.B. Priestley)8
Performance (Ghafir Akbar, Serene Chen, Benjamin Chow, Siobhan Covey, Lim Kay Siu, Dennis Sofian, Yap Yi Kai)9
Music and Sound (Julian Wong)8
Lighting Design (James Tan)8
Set Design (Wong Chee Wai)8
Costume/Hair/Makeup (Leonard Augustine Choo/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)9
Total59/70 84(%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

Despite being written almost 80 years ago, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls remains hauntingly relevant even today. A social commentary disguised as a traditional murder mystery, An Inspector Calls acts as an interrogation of the upper crust and how their indifference to the struggling middle class wreak more damage then they realise, and only serve to widen the feeling of inequality between social classes. It’s no wonder that Wild Rice has decided to stage it, and perhaps, prompt audience members to think about how we too might extend more care to those around us.

Directed by Glen Goei, Wild Rice’s version of An Inspector Calls recontextualises it from its 1940s setting in Britain to 1955 Singapore, no longer a country on the cusp of World War I, but a nation on the brink of gaining independence from the British, with socialist movements fighting for the rights of common workers. An Inspector Calls centres on the aristocratic Ling family, led by Arthur Ling (Lim Kay Siu) and his formidable wife Sybil (Serene Chen). Their children are born into privilege and wealth, with the hedonistic Eric (Dennis Sofian) living for women and alcohol, while protected, self-centred Sheila (Yap Yi Kai) is about to marry her fiance, the equally well-to do and powerful Gerald Kuok (Benjamin Chow). Wong Chee Wai’s set creates the illusion of a massive, well-furnished mansion, thanks to chandeliers, wooden shutters, and large double doors marking the entrance, while darkened corners suggest a family hiding too many secrets to count.

Meanwhile, Leonard Augustine Choo dresses the cast to the nines – the men in shiny, custom black leather shoes and full tuxedos that fit perfectly, complete with inner vest, while Sybil wears a gleaming pearl necklace over an intricate black kebaya, and her daughter dons a rich, silvery, polka-dotted dress, in a vintage cut reminiscent of the era. In essence, they are the very picture of wealth. Laughing and full of excitement for Gerald and Sheila’s wedding, cigars in hand and various bottles of whiskey arranged across the table, there is an air of grotesque opulence, that makes it clear that the Lings are meant to be detested.

A curious addition to the play is Edna, the Lings’ maid (Siobhan Covey), who is perhaps meant to visually represent the working class, standing in stark contrast to the Lings. Edna’s main role before disappearing for the remainder of the play is to announce the arrival of an unexpected guest, and is promptly ignored by her employers. Edna’s presence in the play then, feels like an afterthought, rather than a deliberate move to deepen or flesh out the social commentary.

But it is then that the doors are flung wide open, heralding the arrival of the imposing Inspector Goole (Ghafir Akhbar). Dressed all in grey – a slightly oversized suit, an iconic fedora, and simple shoes, Inspector Goole seems to represent the greying of morals. Goole introduces himself, from the mysterious Tanglin Police Office, and explains his presence: to investigate the Lings over their suspected involvement in a local girl’s suicide. Unlike a Poirot-like detective, or a more menacing man of mystery, Ghafir’s performance here is controlled yet relatable, a regular, working class man who is simply doing his job, his iron will clear to see as he searches for justice.

The family is at first unperturbed by Goole, at least until he shows each of them a photo of the girl, sending shockwaves through the mansion. From here, the truth is slowly revealed – that each of the Lings, and Gerald, have met the late Eva Sim at some point in her life, all responsible for some selfish action that eventually led to her demise, from refusing to offer financial aid, to straight up destroying her reputation. Watching as they each sit in a different corner of the room, it feels as if the truth has begun to form cracks in their relationship, unsure how well they know each other, while nursing the guilt borne from the weight of their actions.

It is also here that each of the cast really fleshes out their characters with tiny nuances and physicality. Serene Chen is particularly impressive at twisting her expression into pure judgmental disdain at her brethren, while Yi Kai encapsulates the bratty nature of Sheila, later on turned sympathetic as she is filled with regret. Benjamin Chow does a fantastic job at going from suave to shamefaced, while Kay Siu feels like a prototypical patriarch, commanding and dismissive of the younger characters’ thinking. Finally, Dennis Sofian captures Eric, sloppy and half drunk, still sipping from his whiskey even when recounting his part.

Leaving the family in a state of disarray, thunder and lightning flashing outside, Goole exits as mysteriously as he came. The family blame each other, at odds with how they should proceed or how they should deal with the mess left behind, seemingly defeated at last. Yet, when all is said and done, the Lings find it in themselves to forgive each other, consoling and reassuring each other that everything is fine, convinced that a single incident like this cannot possibly ruin them. With Goole out of the picture, the status quo seems ready to return to normal, seemingly readying us for a dark ending, where the wrongdoers will remain unpunished. One is left to wonder how many such ‘criminals’ similarly go their entire lives never realising or atoning for their sins.

Still, one final twist remains, a delicious comeuppance that suggests justice will be served after all. An Inspector Calls ends on a note of hope – the Ling children seem to have realised the error of their ways and are willing to change for the better, while overall, the Lings are implied to be implicated for their actions after all. But one is left to wonder, how many such families are there in the world, and how many Evas have suffered in similar ways due to their actions? One must have faith that the upper classes will eventually come around to the realisation that the world does not revolve around them alone. No man is an island, and every action has its consequence, so much that the dominoes will come crashing down should we forget to think and be more responsible for each other.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon

An Inspector Calls runs from 2nd to 25th March 2023 at the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets available here

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