An Inspector Calls

JB Priestley

PW Productions

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

From 15 May 2012 to 19 May 2012

Review by John Johnson

Stephen Daldry's original production of An Inspector Calls was a massive hit in the 1990's—it's always a risk to try and revive a show that has already had It's share of success. However, in this case the risk has paid off.

Perhaps it's the right time to bring out the Inspector with the economic climate and the rich supposedly getting richer and those who are struggling finding that they are struggling even more. The little touches between the Inspector and the 'lower class' characters are an example of this; he is the bridge between the vast gap that opened up gradually as the Birling’s world falls apart around them.

The design of the production is stunning. There is no doubt that all the talk of sets falling down is not inflated over rated hyperbole; it is the main attraction in a production strewn with quality throughout.

Not least is the brilliant ensemble—this is a cast with strong performances aplenty—looking for the weak link is difficult purely due to the fact that there wasn't one. Led expertly by Tom Mannion as the Scottish Inspector (which works well) the Birlings work as the tight knit group they need to be if the play is going to work.

Kelly Hotten conveys the gradual change that Sheila faces in an understated way, which can sometimes be a challenge with such a ‘big character.’ Henry Gilbert plays ‘drunk’ effectively and is also able to show Eric in a three dimensional way—again, not always easy with a character that could fall into a ‘spoilt brat’ caricature.

The playing with time—with the ghosts of the future in war costume and 1940’s dress—works perfectly as an accompanyment to the surreal strangeness of that phone call at the end of the piece. Some may be confused by this added extra, but I felt that it adds depth and raises questions, which feels like one of the reasons that Priestley wrote the play in the first place.

There are other ‘controversies’: the play starts with coversations happening inside the close walls of the Birling House. This means that not all of the words can be heard clearly, though this, to me, seems the point. It is as if we, the outsiders, are listening in to conversations and to an upper class world that perhaps we shouldn’t be privee to. This is emphasised by the street children playing outside the window. Whether Priestley would be so happy with the script not being entirely clear at this point is open for debate.

The real plaudits, though, need to go to Ian McNeill’s fabulous design. The set opens like a doll's house as though we are looking into this little world of people who treat others like their ‘playthings’. This, coupled with Rick Fisher’s lighting design, creates an eerie backdrop that is as murky as the business dealings of Arthur Birling.

It is the detail that really makes this production the award-winning piece that it is. From the Inspector’s entrance slowly through the audience to the ‘ghosts’ crammed in to the Birling’s home at the end, you are certain to be provided with a rich slice of theatre.