Writer: J B Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
J B Priestley structured several of his plays around slippages in time and developed his own theory to link past, present and future. So no doubt he would be, at least, intrigued by the award-winning version, by Stephen Daldry, of his 1945 play, which is set in 1912. Daldry’s version was itself first produced at the National Theatre in 1992, so it already speaks with the voice of a previous generation. Does it still have anything to say to the audience of 2020?
This evening’s audience of 2020 is largely composed of GCSE students for whom Priestley’s drama is a set text this year. So, tonight’s play is addressing itself to a demographic not born until 13 years after Daldry rocked the National with his startling treatment of what had been, until then, a play largely regarded as a stale staple of the repertory circuit. Does it still startle a generation brought up on CGI, Netflix, and gaming consoles?
The core of the drama concerns the investigation by Inspector Goole of the death by suicide of a young woman called Eva Smith. The cause of her death is known, but the Inspector is determined to unearth the underlying causes that brought her to take her own life. His focus is the respectable and privileged Birling family, who are celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling, to Gerald Croft, the son of local gentry.
The Inspector’s interrogations shatter the celebratory mood of the party as one-by-one they are revealed to have been connected to the young woman’s decline and death, however unwittingly. Their attempts to evade responsibility, and preserve their facade of respectability and moral integrity, causes the family to implode, and much of the set to explode. Literally.
Inspector Goole, it is clear from the beginning, is no ordinary Inspector. While his suspects are in Edwardian black-tie finery, he is in 1940’s double-breasted chalk stripe and gabardine mac. He is not subservient to his betters, and frequently moralises on their behaviour to their faces, and often directly to the audience. Liam Brennan, with his soft Scottish burr, inhabits the part completely.
The Burling household to which Goole holds up the mirror could be seen as stock types, and at the outset that is how they are presented. Arthur Birling, played very competently by Jeffrey Harmer, is a self-made man, a capitalist who thrills to the mantra of lower costs and higher profits from his factories. His wife, Sybil, is imperious. Christine Kavanagh sustains her disdain for the lower orders and the undeserving poor, as well as her regal carriage, throughout. Even as her world crumbles around her.
Their offspring, Eric and Sheila, played by Ryan Saunders and Chloe Orrock, are products of their class and background. Expecting deference, and used to having their own way, they share much of their parents’ lack of concern for the members of wider society, but each comes to acknowledge their failings, as a class as well as individuals. Symbolically they both end the play dishevelled, and distraught by the truths they have been made to face. Sheila in particular, grows in feistiness and moral righteousness as the drama unfolds.
Sheila’s fiance Gerald is played by Alasdair Buchan, and he manages to bring considerable subtlety to the part. At first sight, a potential member of the Bullingdon Club, and morally dubious, he shows vestiges of human compassion which might even signal his potential redemption. But in a different play. Priestley has him marked down for hellfire.
The remaining stage presence, is the maid, Edna, played by Linda Beckett, anachronistically dressed in a 1940’s pinny. She appears complicit with the mysterious Inspector in whatever quest he is on, and acts as a silent witness to the evisceration of the sham respectability of the Burling household. A sort of mute Greek chorus to the tragedy.
Ian MacNeil’s set is still a thing of wonder after almost 30 years. A glorious box-set dining room lands like an Apollo module amid the bomb sites and dereliction of northern England at war’s end, in a hostile atmosphere of rain and smoke. The box expands to provide a sanctuary from the austere reality for those privileged enough to enjoy it, as even the audience, at the start, have their noses pressed to the windows. But the characters face their interrogations and dissolutions in the mire at stage level.
The lighting might be called atmospheric, and it certainly creates focus. But the music and sound are often harsh and intrusive: Dramatic, but heavy-handed.
There are faults here. Some of them go back to the original play, and its holier-than-thou sermonising, its stock characters, it’s directness and clarity of message in an age when we prefer our messages nuanced or even obscure. Some of them go back to 1992, when the stage effects represented the shock of the new, and injecting an old warhorse with a dose of monkey glands could produce both comfort and surprise.
The original play is of such quality, its structure so nailed, and its surprises so timely, that it will probably go on forever. This adaptation has such merit, that it will probably be delighting audiences many years into the future. Timelessness is a peculiar concept. J B Priestley may not have included it in his theorising on time. But perhaps those looking to extend Stephen Daldry’s take on this classic into the further reaches of the 2020’s should consider whether infinity should have boundaries.
Runs until 18th January 2020, then touring until October