Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Lela Tredwell
Winner of four Tony Awards and three Olivier Awards, Stephen Daldry’s seminal production of this classic thriller makes its 30th anniversary tour.
With its stunning aesthetic and bold staging, An Inspector Calls is as visually invigorating as it is poignant. Ambitiously, it defies the rules of space and time. Walls are broken and barriers between eras erode. The disorientating atmosphere this causes, has us caught off guard as the gaze of the play oozes out into the audience, accompanied by walls of smoke, blankets of precipitation and bracing cold air. We feel drawn into its world, as much as it is already part of ours.
There are many moments to be enjoyed of wonder, awe and shock. The outstanding set design complements the production’s energetic staging. A bleak 1940s urban landscape is strikingly contrasted with a rickety old doll’s house on stilts, complete with the fussy décor of a lavish dining room. The choice to move the action out of the stiff Edwardian drawing rooms of the play’s past and onto the cobbled streets of an urban landscape – reminiscent of Blitz-battered London – was an inspired one that has no doubt contributed to the play’s continued success.
Three decades ago, Stephen Daldry revived An Inspector Calls with such innovation as to inject
new life into J. B. Priestley’s work. The production plays with elements of realism, surrealism and melodrama. There are a few moments that feel too melodramatic, which jar us out of the action, but more often they contribute to the catalogue of emotional operatics that suit Priestley’s characters. The collection of which are embodied by a strong cast. Mesmerising is Evlyne Oyedokun’s performance as Sheila Birling. She brings such extraordinary energy to the role, managing to skilfully embody privilege, innocence, entitlement, frivolity, endearing defiance and personal growth. Also extremely compelling to watch, but in stark contrast to the verbal gymnastics required to play Sheila, is the character of the silent ominous Edna, beautifully realised by Frances Campbell.
Intriguing are other non-verbal characters of the children who contribute to numerous pleasing visual tableaux, but don’t feel fully realised. It is not always clear what they are doing as they play with the stage curtain or mime tightrope-walking. However, they do serve as voyeurs to the Birlings. They are outsiders, watching the family like they are a soap opera, or a reality show or the cult of celebrity and power. Alongside the presence of Edna, they help create a gulf between rich and poor, between the entitled and the silently hungry.
J. B. Priestley’s concerns regarding social inequality in Britain, unchecked capitalism and extreme wealth disparity, are as relevant to us today as they were when he was writing An Inspector Calls, and as relevant as when he set his play, in the early part of the 20th Century. Daldry’s highly accomplished production highlights the reoccurring problem of social injustice. It invites us to question our rickety, unstable structures of wealth, power and celebrity today. It echos F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words when he wrote of his own obscenely wealthy characters: “They were careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.”
This production’s portrayal of Priestley’s careless people, the Birling family, asks of us: are these really the people you want to look up to, you want elevated, you want to serve? It prompts us to consider again about the careless people we watch, we elect, we aspire to become. It invites us, like the infamous Inspector Goole, to hold our careless people to account.
As the gulf between rich and poor gets ever wider, as the gap between the entitled and the silently hungry grows, as we recognise the increasing divide between those that make the rules and those held accountable to them, we would be hard pushed not to ask the vital question: When might the inspector call again?
Runs to 19th November and on UK tour