Writer: J.B Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
J.B. Priestley’s best-known work, An Inspector Calls, has consistently stood the test of time. This is a revival of the 1992 award-winning National Theatre production directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by Priestley at the end of the Second World War and set just before the onset of the first, Daldry evokes the theme of war as a looming monster plainly surrounding the ivory tower of the Birlings, the safe bubble in which they all live. Here they are visited by Inspector Goole, investigating the murder of Eva Smith and their involvement in it.
Daldry takes huge liberties with Priestley’s script. What originally would have been conceived stylistically as a conventional drawing room drama is now anything but. That this mostly works shows just what a brilliant piece of writing it is. The structuring of the play is an absolute master class in playwriting not only allowing Priestley to fully explore his polemic on the inequity of wealth but also allowing us to experience his characters plunging into guilt over their growing self-awareness only for them to be allowed to absolve themselves again. The message could be heavy-handed, but it never is; Priestley has far too much respect for his audience.
It is hard to pick a standout actor in this supremely vocally strong cast. Even at times when they rattle through lines at top speed, not a word is lost. Daldry’s pacing of the play is masterful. He knows when to speed through text and when to make us wait. All the players show great emotional range as their characters’ self-satisfied lives are psychologically and literally dismantled.
Edna, the Birling’s servant, played by Frances Campbell, is an interesting presence. She has almost no lines but is a steady counterpoint to her masters’ emotional journeys. Even when they are at their most reflective and remorseful, she is still invisible to them as they continue to treat her with disdain giving the lie to their contrite words.
If you fully buy into Daldry’s vision, then Ian Macneil’s set is perhaps the star of the show as it very dramatically reflects the journey of the Birling family. At first, comfortably engulfing them safe from the horrors all around and finally spitting them out and crushing them. This goes hand in hand with Stephen Warbeck’s haunting score which sets moods, creates tension and punctuates prophetic moments with an underlying foreboding.
The Inspector, played by Liam Brennan, is portrayed as a very knowing and deliberate game player, very aware of time running out on him if he’s to achieve his goal. His portrayal is appropriately Brechtian as Goole has all the power and, in this instance, the power to stop the play and bring us all back into the theatre auditorium before he exits, and the fictional world engulfs us again.
The inspector sums up his investigation by saying,
‘And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’.
Daldry has taken the essence of this and imbued every moment of this production with it. You might not absorb some of the early dialogue as Daldry’s own creative artistry may overpower but on balance, his vision adds more than it takes from the play as it extracts every iota of richness from the text.
It is often a lazy empty cliché to say a work of art is still relevant but, in this case, it is in so many ways, shockingly so at times. Go and see this top-class cast in a top-class production.
Runs until: 18 February 2023 and on tour