An Inspector Calls

J B Priestley
National Theatre
New Wimbledon Theatre

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An Inspector Calls Credit: Tristram Kenton
An Inspector Calls Credit: Tristram Kenton
An Inspector Calls Credit: Tristram Kenton

An Inspector Calls could be interchanged with A Doll’s House, at least the way this Stephen Daldry production is staged.

It exudes references symbolic of the precarious position of a grotesque wealthy family as they gather for a celebratory dinner marking the engagement of their daughter Sheila: the biggest example of this is their house positioned on stilts, well above and removed from the shabby street on the ground level where the children of the poor play. Does their arrogance come about because they are aware of how fragile their whole existence is?

The striking set, which is both bold and slightly quirky, features the house of the wealthy. It’s surprisingly quite small and a little lopsided, drawing on the idea of the aloof and self-contained world that they inhabit that’s at the same time totally unsustainable. A sense of foreboding is thus placed foremost in the audience’s mind as part of a very physical experience that is truly centre-stage.

Set just before the start of the First World War, it signals all that is both bold and at odds within the household. Only as their world begins to collapse does the family descend from their uneven house (which can also reflect their lopsided view of life) and onto the street level, entering the world of the street children who look on intensely at the unreachable household above. The policeman is the only one who has the confidence to cross both arenas, even demanding that the Birling family comes down to him at his behest to explain themselves.

For anyone familiar with Priestley’s text or the black and white film adaptation starring Alastair Sim, it’s a dramatic move on. While the 1950s film emphasises elements of the mystery crime drama, Daldry’s production is more an insight into human corruption and social constructs: the atmosphere is necessarily sinister when an unknown police inspector interrupts an elegant dinner party at the Birling home, but the real conversation begins with Inspector Goole’s indictment of each member of the family in the apparent suicide of the young, working class woman Eva Smith. It turns out that Eva Smith touched the lives of every family member, personally or professionally and each of them separately contributed to her eventual demise.

Inspector Goole, played by Liam Brennan, is a bit gruffer than the version presented by Alaistair Sim, although both actors are effortlessly in complete command of their situations. The other characters though are largely as you’d expect: the mother Mrs Birling (Christine Kavanagh) exudes the pomposity of a socially elevated woman. Her haughtiness is made all the more necessary because her husband Eric Birling (Ryan Saunders) is actually a self-made man. On his part, this ruthless, practically minded company head who’s steered his business through dark times to a healthy profit, sacking troublesome staff along the way, is tempered by the hopes he now carries of being recognised in the forthcoming Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Meanwhile, the children Sheila (Chloe Orrock) and Eric (Ryan Saunders) take on a combination of their parent’s vices and pretences, with an almost affable fragility that shows through the moment their parts in driving Eva Smith to her death are exposed. Sheila’s fiancé Gerald (Alasdair Buchan) meanwhile aptly portrays a thoroughly obnoxious, self-satisfied, soon to be wealthy young adult, oblivious to the plight of the masses.

Daldry's production originally opened in 1992 at the National Theatre. It’s had many an outing already in London but next year sees a whistle-stop tour spanning Southampton to Glasgow to Cardiff and Leicester. The next January performance is at The Lowry 14 to 18 January 2020. It’s won 19 major awards including four Tony Awards and three Olivier Awards. Given this memorable take on a classic text, it’s easy to see why.

Reviewer: Shiroma Silva

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