Writer: JB Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Twenty-four years after Stephen Daldry’s legendary production first opened at the National Theatre, An Inspector Calls calls on London’s West End yet again, having played somewhere across the globe for most of the interim period. This year also marks the 70th Anniversary of the first production in the UK of JB Priestley’s play.
The drama bridges two eras in 20th Century British social history, looking at stark divisions in the immediate post-Edwardian period from the perspective of a time when the Second World War had ended and fervour for Socialism was sweeping the country. The fact that its premier was in Moscow rather than London gives a pointer to the playwright’s well-known political leanings and he duly rams home unsubtle messages about social responsibility in a writing style that embraces implausible melodrama and heavy-handed preaching.
In a Northern industrial town, members of the Birling family, wealthy factory owners, sit down to dinner. Their head is pompous, blustering Arthur (Clive Francis}, married to snobbish Sybil (Barbara Marten}. They are the upholders of the old social order, but their daughter, Sheila (Carmela Corbett), while inheriting some of their selfishness, holds more enlightened views. The numbers are made up by Gerald (Matthew Douglas), Sheila’s seemingly upstanding fiancé, and Eric (Hamish Riddle), the youngest Birling, who is already a drunkard.
The family’s tranquillity is disturbed when the assiduous Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) calls. He informs them of the suicide that day of a young town girl and proceeds to reveal how each of the five present played a part in her downfall, exposing their guilt and hypocrisy. Their pleas that their responsibilities rest only with self and family fall on deaf ears as the policeman lectures them on their social duty, at one point turning to the audience as if delivering a Sunday sermon.
By 1992, Priestley had already acquired the tag “old-fashioned” and a conventional production of this moribund piece may have done little to change that perception. However, the manner in which Daldry transformed it into what we see revived here is one of the wonders of modern theatre. He starts by turning the play inside out, absolutely literally. The audience is now placed as if on the street outside the Birling house, peering into the dining room, glowing and warm, as ordinary townsfolk go about their business below them on the cold outside.
Ian MacNeil’s set design is astonishing – a huge Gothic mansion placed against a grey cloudy sky, dominating the stage and opening out to reveal its opulent interior. It is the centrepiece of the production and the director uses it imaginatively. The opening scene is visible through a window and only semi-audible, turning the focus towards the silent people in the street; In accord with Priestley’s themes, Daldry is telling us that the Birlings’ conversation is inconsequential, it is the wider world that really matters. He also adds startling stage effects and touches of grand opera, Stephen Warbeck’s Wagner-inspired music heightening the melodrama.
Plot twists in the final scene feel unnecessary and add nothing to what Priestley has already said, suggesting that, as a parable, the play could have been sharper if shorter than the 105 minutes (with no interval) that it runs here. In contrast to the Birling household, Daldry’s production, well acted in this revival, remains sturdy and dependable, but it masks the suspicion that Priestley’s play itself may now be well in need of a long rest,
Runs until 4 February 2016 | Image: Mark Douet