Writer: J. B. Priestly
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Much beloved by anyone setting the syllabus for English exams, An Inspector Calls is one of those rare things, a play that works as a piece of entertainment but also delivers a telling social commentary with convincing characters and believable situations. That it remains a regular feature in theatres, rather than existing simply as an academic text, is undoubtedly the result of Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production which took the play out of the period drama genre and found the contemporary relevance of its central messages. Almost thirty years on, the production is still a must-see.
Set in 1912, but written in 1945, the story plays out in the Birling family household. Arthur Birling is the factory owner who believes that the idea that he, and other members of the capitalist class, have any responsibility for wider society is both wrong and dangerous.
The distance between the Birling’s and the working-class masses who keep their businesses running is emphasised in the opening of the play. While ordinary people walk across the streets, the Birlings are in their drawing room, several feet above the rest of the stage and separated from it by steps that have been removed. This is their world and no-one is getting into it. We’re not even allowed to see into it as the opening scene plays out behind closed doors with only the view through the windows providing us an insight into what’s playing out as the Birling’s celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sybil to Gerald Croft, a man whose family own a business that is older and larger than Birling’s. It’s a business deal as much as it is a marriage, which says all we need to know about Birling’s priorities.
The doors and walls of the house are blown open and the Birling’s world opened up to scrutiny by the arrival of Inspector Goole, a detective investigating the suicide of Eva Smith, a former employee at the factory. The family initially fail to see how her death, two years after she was sacked by Birling, can have anything to do with them, but as Goole works his way through Smith’s life, the separate parts they all played in her demise becomes clear. Even Sybil’s fiancée is implicated.
There’s the risk that the stage set and the extras that walk across it could be seen as laying on the message with a trowel, but instead they add extra layers of subtlety and meaning. The only negative is the use of background music that sometimes threatens to turn the play from drama to melodrama as it announces the arrival of significant moments that are clear enough without it.
It’s a parable as much as a play, with the older Birling’s representing the established world order, Eva Smith standing in for the working class community as a whole, the Inspector acting as the mouthpiece for the people who don’t have a voice and the younger Birling’s coming to represent hope that the next generation won’t repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.
Jeffrey Harmer as Arthur Birling, calling to mind the likes of Hywel Bennet as he captures the bluff an bluster of the Northern business man who has worked his way into the higher echelons of society and pulled up the drawbridge, and Chloe Orrock as Sheila, making the journey from protected and protracted childhood to someone beginning to recognise the world around them, are particular stand-outs in the excellent ensemble cast.
Overall, this is an almost faultless show and an excellent production that brings out the timelessness of the script and message behind it.
Runs until 12 October then touring | Image: Contributed