An Inspector Calls
Review by Philip Fisher
It is now over nine years since Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls first appeared at the National Theatre. Having spent the majority of those years at the Garrick Theatre, this often-humorous psychological thriller has now transferred to the Playhouse.
The current production still benefits from all of the qualities that made the play such a hit all those years ago. Priestley's play is carefully plotted and remains great fun. The set, designed by Ian MacNeill, has won all of the awards going and, even on a second or third visit to the play, still makes a massive impact with a red telephone booth in one of the boxes at the side of the stage, the stage itself bent and buckled and the classic, symbolic doll's house in which some of the action takes place.
When Rick Fisher's superb lighting and Stephen Warbeck's slightly melodramatic but very effective music are added to the cocktail, a good night at the theatre is guaranteed, regardless of the quality of the acting. This may be just as well since the Christmas 2001 cast is not the best that has performed this play.
Niall Buggy is the latest Inspector Goole (Ghoul?) and while he catches the mood at times, his tendency to shout his denunciations reduces rather than increases the impact of the threat that he provides to the nouveau riche Birling family. He is good at representing the conscience of a seemingly perfect family and the timing with which he brings down each person in turn adds much to the production. He does suffer from the problem that the natural tendency for most people who know An Inspector Calls is to compare any lead actor with the wonderful Alastair Sim performance in the classic film production.
The acting generally is rather over the top although Buggy and Emma Gregory, as the spunky daughter Sheila Birling, hold the play together. There are also some amusing comic touches from Diane Fletcher as the mother. She does though seem to have listened to Joyce Grenfell too recently as she affects an all too perfect image of the song "Stately as a Galleon ".
None of this matters however as the play develops and takes over the minds of its audience. While Priestley has a reputation nowadays as a middlebrow writer there is much depth and texture to An Inspector Calls. It could be regarded as a meditation on guilt or the lack of innocence as each character inevitably gets destroyed as they are dragged into the confessional and expose their personal areas of weakness.
Priestley's understanding of human vanity and weakness is beautifully demonstrated and the thrill and hilarity of the revelations presents a very pure kind of pleasure. It also gets under the skin, as most people will realise that, like the characters, they too could be undone by seemingly innocent acts. In this way, Priestley has written a moral play, which is just as applicable to 2001 as it is to 1912 when it was set. It also interestingly explores the philosophical differences between moral absolutism and moral relativism with telling effect. As the playwright says, "there is a thin line between respectable citizens and criminals".
There is also a major political agenda bubbling just below the surface. The family is a microcosm of English society at the time. There has been much written about the last year or two prior to "The War To End All Wars". The black clouds at the back of the set are a giveaway. We see a society that is already on the slide and there is a speech from the Inspector to the audience towards the end of the play in which he condemns a society that has lost its heart.
Daldry's most important contribution is to make the political message much stronger and this adds significantly to Priestley's impact. We see a rich family that is beginning to lose its paternalistic hold on the lower classes. Life will never be the same again and, like rats, the poor slowly impinge upon the lives of the seemingly happy and successful Birling family. There's no question that a permanent change has taken place and the class-ridden society that Priestley detested has commenced a decline that will be completed by the 1960s.
This play should be compulsory for anybody who loves the theatre but they will probably have seen it already. It should also be high on the list for those who visit theatres for the odd birthday and want to be sure of a safe, enjoyable night out with some real surprises.