DramaReviewSouth West

An Inspector Calls – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Playwright: J.B Priestley

Director: Stephen Daldry

Associate Director: Julian Webber

Firmly assured of its place in the canon, J.B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls has all the hallmarks of an enduring classic. First performed in 1945, and studied by generations of schoolchildren, the play continues to challenge audiences, with director Stephen Daldry’s ground-breaking rework of the domestic thriller.

Dramatically staged in a raised dolls-house of a set, we join the Birling family as they celebrate. Only able to hear their voices and catch glimpses of them through the windows, we learn that Sheila Birling (Chloe Orrock) has just got engaged to wealthy businessman, Gerald Croft (Alasdair Buchan).

As the family toast their good fortune, life is looking pretty good. Arthur Birling (Jeffery Harmer) proudly celebrates his daughter’s success, whilst lecturing his son Eric, and future son-in-law, about the preservation of self-interest.

Sheila admires her new engagement ring, and the doorbell rings. An Inspector Goole (played by Liam Brennan) is here to see them. A young woman – we learn her name is Eva Smith – is lying in the morgue, having swallowed disinfectant. The Inspector has some questions.

Daldry’s award-winning formula, from its first performance in 1992, remains more or less unchanged. A small cast of principal characters, a cobbled street below the Birling residence. One by one, the Inspector interrogates the family. Their outrage – Arthur Birling blusters that he is a retired Lord Mayor, still a magistrate – is swiftly countered by Goole’s no-nonsense approach to police work. No excuses, just answers. As the questions build, the family begin to realise each has played a part in the girl’s journey to the slab.

Set in the 1900’s, the Birling’s world hangs on a precipice – World War I is about to start, and the cosy future Arthur imagines, will fall right in the middle of World War II. The Birlings aren’t just smug Edwardians; they are about to be flung head-first into the 20th Century. It is their unknowingness that creates tension.

Liam Brennan’s take on the Inspector is suitably dogged and phlegmatic– his performance very much leans on the Everyman aspect of the character. As the youngest Birling, Eric (Ryan Saunders) gives his character a real sense of outrage, as the final piece of the puzzle is slotted into place.

An Inspector Calls is a densely political play, and Daldry’s production does not shy away from Priestley’s socialist agenda. Priestley’s ideals go beyond the personal and are set against a bigger picture. You will always find new things re-watching a play, and the scenes mentioning Eva’s hunger and search for secure employment, strike at a modern political landscape where benefit sanctions and the ‘gig economy’ have become the norm. Progress, argues Priestley, is not always inevitable.

Since the play’s last major tour in 2016, David Cameron’s concept of the ‘Big Society’ has failed, and Britain once again finds itself at another precipice. Priestley’s play, if nothing else, warns us that if we do not learn the lessons of the past, we will be taught them. 75 years on, it is a message that needs repeating.

Runs until Saturday 7 March | Image: Contributed

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A fiercely contemporary classic

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