An Inspector Calls
J B Priestley
Stephen Daldry's 1992 production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
What is there left for a critic to say about a production which has been running (with various casts) since 1992 and which is loaded with awards (Olivier, Drama Desk and Tony)?
Perhaps one could talk about the performances but, as in musicals (Les Miserables is the supreme example but there are many, many others), opera or ballet, new cast members have to fit their performances to the originals: there may be slightly different nuances but there is no reworking of the piece, which remains essentially the same. The performances of Kenneth Cranham in the original at the National and of understudy Jeremy Spriggs last night in Newcastle will be at least 95% identical.
So where do we go? Is it time to take another look at the play itself? As I left the theatre I overheard one young man (somewhere around the age of 20) saying that, although he enjoyed it, it was a bit predictable. Of course it wasn't when it was first performed in 1945, but perhaps that's a weakness now? But the deaths of Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet or the uniting of Beatrice and Benedick are also predictable but that doesn't stop us both enjoying and getting a lot out of the plays (with the caveat, of course, that Priestley is not Shakespeare!).
Perhaps, then, we should look at Daldry's expressionist approach. Expressionism is non-realistic, the distortion of reality to create an emotional effect. It comes perilously close to melodrama at times - I have heard the word "overacting" used: one local paper did so in its review - but what Daldry gives us is not a realistic Birling family (nor, for that matter, a realistic Inspector Goole) but a series of types (but not stereotypes: they do have individuality). In the same way, the house, although realistic in detail, is small, so that the characters who emerge onto the balcony have to stoop to get out of the door.
Then there's the period setting. The play opens to the sound of the wartime all-clear, then reverts to its pre-WWWI setting, and by the end we have a mixture of periods, with the crowd of supernumeries moving in, just as the working class of the Birlings' period were already beginning to asset their rights through such things as the strike which led to Eva Smith's sacking, and the street littered with debris from the collapsed house (by then restored), just like the immediate aftermath of a bombing raid. And this contrasts with Birling's assertion, in the first act, that by 1945 wars and other troubles will be things of the past because of the progress made by mankind.
It's worth mentioning, perhaps, that this playing with time fits rather well with Priestley's interest in J W Dunne's theory of time and his plays Dangerous Corner and Time and the Conways.
Does this date it? The aforementioned young man's comment aside, I think not. Priestley's "message" comes over strongly and has as much resonance today as it did in 1945 (or, indeed, in 1912). Indeed, it was not long before Daldry's production opened that Margaret Thatcher informed us there is no such thing as society and gave us her version of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"!
All theories and discussions of theories aside, the production makes a huge impact on the audience. It certainly did in Newcastle: an audience which included a fair number of school parties received it with enthusiasm and left with that so-much-to-be-desired buzz. They'd been entertained but they'd also been set talking not just about the political message but about the staging and performances.
And a final word about those performances: the whole cast play up to the style of the production and give us characters who are totally suited to it, from the silent Edna of Diana Payne-Myers to the Lady Bracknell-ish Sybil Birling of Sandra Duncan, from Louis Hilyer's threatening yet compassionate Goole to Marianne Oldham's conscience-stricken Sheila, whilst understudy Jeremy Spriggs gives us the perfectly self-satisifed and irredeemably self-centred Arthur Birling and Robin Whiting the son Eric who, like his sister, has those pangs of conscience which promises well for the future, unlike his contemporary Gerald Croft (Alisdair Simpson) who is, essentially, a younger version of Arthur.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan