An Inspector Calls
J B Priestley
Helped by Stephen Daldry's iconic National Theatre production, J B Priestley's 1945 evocation of a vanished age might be the perfect example of a well-made play.
With its metaphorical demonstration of the upper classes losing their iron grip on society just ahead of the Great War, the piece also has similarities with much of the Chekhov oeuvre, though the nuclear Birling family are very much English and Edwardian in outlook.
The 1¾ hours open in celebratory mood over a dinner at which the engagement is announced between Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft, uniting two trading families.
Designer Ian MacNeil excels, creating not one but two shrunken houses, symbolising the claustrophobic stranglehold that Liam Brennan's imperious Inspector Goole will soon have over the family. The main house also awaits its moment of glory in a remarkable coup de théâtre that still has the power to shock and impress even those that have seen the production on more than one occasion.
Before a word is uttered, the class divide between the Birlings and the common folk has become obvious, helped by a trio of ragamuffin children and the beginnings of a dramatic soundscape based around Steven Warbeck's haunting compositions.
The celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of the brash, Scottish policeman who begins to interrogate first Clive Francis as snooty Arthur Birling, a mini business mogul sniffing a knighthood whose attitudes would feel very dated a century on had not someone espousing an uncannily similar philosophy not just been elected to the White House.
Slowly but surely, like a skilful angler, Goole reels in first the old man by insinuating that he sacked a girl for engaging in political warfare. She later killed herself.
However, the Inspector has four more fish to fry during a gripping evening, as next we discover that silly daughter Sheila, played gauchely by Carmella Corbett, jealously led to the same girl losing a job while her new fiancé Matthew Douglas's Gerald proceeded to sleep with the by then unemployed woman of the town.
It doesn’t stop there as Sybil, the regal mother who, in the hands of Barbara Marten just happens to borrow the terrifying tones of the late Lady Thatcher and her most arch, refused alms after sottish young son Eric, Hamish Riddle, got the pseudonymous young woman with child then used stolen money in relatively noble effort to support her.
By the end of all of this, the family suffers collective guilt but, while the older generation is happy when it spots an opportunity to escape its collective responsibility, the idealistic young are more honourable and modern.
In this version, the direction can be a little over-deliberate while the acting tends towards the melodramatic, but these are minor quibbles.
An Inspector Calls is a magnificent socio-political drama that grips thanks to impeccable plotting and some unforgettable twists, ensuring that the audience has to think both during and after watching a production that keeps coming back by popular demand almost 25 years after its launch.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher