An Inspector Calls

J.B. Priestley
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

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Either you are all stark staring mad, Jeremy Paxman once remarked to his studio guests, or I am utterly benighted. My reactions entirely on seeing, 13 years after it opened in the West End, Stephen Daldry's production of J B Pristley's An Inspector Calls, now recast and touring the British Isles (again).

The puzzle for Paxman, the unfathomable mystery which exercised his grey matter - you could practically see smoke coming out of his ears and a display flashing, "does not compute" - was a suggestion, unanimously endorsed, that mankind was destined to become a hybrid human/android. My own bafflement was brought on by the disparity between the widespread critical and popular response to this production then and now, and mine. Could they be serious?

Doubt set in after the curtain rose to reveal the exterior of a Victorian suburban villa. Unfortunately it was less grand house then wendy house. In fact it reminded me of nothing so much as the henge in Spinal Tap. Someone, seems to have marked the plans in inches rather than feet and, instead of an imposing edifice, suggesting authority, power, wealth, you had something the size of a bouncy castle. Dwarfs would be in danger of knocking it over; as it was, actors wishing to step out on to the 'balcony' had to manoeuvre through a small window, like Tom the cat forcing his way into Jerry's mouse hole.

The over-amplified ominous chords which heralded the rise of the curtain signalled the extent to which everything is underlined. 'Expressionistic' is the term usually applied to this production; stating the bleeding obvious might be another. Which brings me to the acting. The inspector does not so much call; he positively bellows, as do the rest of the cast - to a greater or lesser extent.

I don't want to single out actors whom in any case I wouldn't point the finger at. No, I blame the parents, and the teachers - and the director - credited still as Stephen Daldry - who seems to have done anything but direct. Nick Barber as the younger scion of the Birlings has some nice moments, continuing the promise shown in The Gentleman from Olmedo at The Watermill, Newbury, last year. But his performance at times drew gusts of giggles from the many teenagers for whom the play is apparently a set text. Over-emoted and then some! However, it was of a piece with the rest of the acting by the company.

And did no-one give any thought to the logistics of playing the remainder of the play, once the house has collapsed, on a stage covered in broken crockery? Actors stumble around, shards of china crunching under their feet, as this arthritic piece of theatre mercifully draws to close. For the life of me I cannot understand (a) why this piece is being revived and (b) why it is being studied at school. The world, I would argue, has moved on since the play was written so that the twists now seem merely contrived, clumsy, while the 'message', that we are all responsible for and connected to each other in some measure, holds true still, yes, but in a more complicated, fractured society, surely a more sophisticated level of debate is required of the issues raised? I should stress that the response from a near capacity audience was very enthusiastic. But the next time this inspector calls, I shall not be at home.

Philip Fisher reviewed the original run of this production (with a different cast) at the Playhouse, Steve Orme reviewed it at the Birmingham Rep and Kevin Catchpole at the Southampton Mayflower.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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