An Inspector Calls

J B Priestley
National Theatre
Curve Theatre, Leicester

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Liam Brennan (Inspector Goole) Credit: Mark Douet
Jeffrey Harmer (Arthur Birling), George Rowlands (Eric Birling), Simon Cotton (Gerald Croft) Credit: Mark Douet
Christine Kavanagh (Sybil Birling), Jeffrey Harmer (Arthur Birling), Liam Brennan (Inspector Goole) Credit: Mark Douet

Many words have already been written about J B Priestley’s stage thriller An Inspector Calls, now approaching the 80th anniversary of its first performance in 1945 in Moscow. And these words aren’t just by the critics over the years but by thousands of GCSE students, given the play’s longstanding appearance on the National Curriculum. Coachloads of young people crowding Curve’s confectionery stands on press night attest to its continued study.

Stephen Daldry made his directorial debut at the National in 1992 with this groundbreaking and multi-award-winning revival, where scrupulous adherence to Edwardian period detail was jettisoned in favour of Ian MacNeil’s surrealist set design.

As an all-clear siren sounds, three children play in front of heavy, slightly tattered velvet drapes which lift to reveal rain pounding grey cobbles and an oddly skewed but grand house on stilts. Cramped in the dining room, the Birlings celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to the wealthy businessman George Croft (Simon Cotton). Sheila’s father Arthur (Jeffrey Harmer) wastes no opportunity to remind the gathered company of his successes as factory owner, Lord Mayor, and now there’s rumours of a knighthood. Sheila’s younger brother Eric (George Rowlands) has issues with alcohol, and mother Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) is the haughty lady of the manor.

And then an inspector calls. Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives at the Birling residence to question the family on their knowledge of Eva Smith, a young working class woman who lies dead at the hospital having committed suicide. Gradually, each character's involvement in Eva’s life is revealed, along with social commentary on the treatment of the “have nots” by the “haves”.

Created in the early days of Attlee’s post-WW2 regeneration of Britain but set in 1912 as the First World War looms, there is still much that resonates with 21st century Britain. Priestley’s political leanings are clear and in terms of theatre holding a mirror up to society, how far have we changed in these past 80 years? An essay for politics and history students there, I’m sure.

A good essay could also be written on the directorial and theatrical choices with Daldry’s production, currently touring the UK. It is rich in signifiers, not least the ivory tower of the Birlings’ home, perched above the squalor of the streets below. The fourth wall is broken regularly, actors turn to the audience as if giving evidence in court, ever-present subservient maid Edna (Frances Campbell) is always watching, and all accentuated by Rick Fisher’s lighting which puts the family and their behaviour literally “under the spotlight”.

Performances are strong, sometimes delivery is a little overblown for my tastes, but Brennan convinces as the enigmatic, principled Goole. I prefer also to go with the hope offered by Sheila and Eric as their journeys conclude.

An Inspector Calls justifies its place on the curriculum, as a piece of theatre to thrill, and as a creative endeavour. Further, it provides the opportunity for reflection on human behaviour and how we treat each other, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves. A thought-provoking production in many ways.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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