If there’s a more timely production touring the UK right now than An Inspector Calls, I don’t know what it is. J B Priestley’s 1945 play is a well-known story, studied by many of us as a school text – and yet it’s anything but academic, particularly in today’s political climate, where the question of social conscience and collective responsibility is a topic of daily conversation.
Stephen Daldry’s award-winning production, first performed in 1992 and now in its 25th tour, takes us immediately out of the Birlings’ lavish dining room and into the streets of Brumley, where children play in the rain until they’re shooed away by the family’s maid, Edna. As the prosperous family sit down to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, in high spirits and confident that all’s right with the world, a mysterious figure appears, and stands, motionless, in the street outside. This is Inspector Goole, who will, over the course of one evening, force each member of the family to confess their part in the downfall of a young woman, Eva Smith, who’s just drunk disinfectant and died horribly in the local infirmary.
But this is a story – and a production – that’s about far more than one family, or one unfortunate young woman. Ian MacNeil’s incredible set establishes the enormous distance between the Birlings and the rest of society, with the opening scenes taking place behind closed doors as we, along with the children, stay locked firmly outside. Gradually, though, the Birlings are drawn out of their home and into the cold, wet street, to answer for their actions in a court, not of law, but of social conscience. And in turn, the play forces us as audience members to consider the impact of what we do on those around us, and the need to look out for each other as fellow human beings, no matter who we are or what our background is.
In this particular revival of Daldry’s production, Liam Brennan leads the cast with ease; his Inspector Goole is a quietly imposing figure, prone to occasional bursts of passion that are all the more effective for their rarity. Tim Woodward is full of bluff and bluster as businessman and patriarch Arthur, as he tries to justify his actions, while Caroline Wildi is brilliantly despicable as his wife Sybil, the only member of the family who appears to feel no remorse at all for her part in Eva Smith’s death.
As the family’s world begins to crumble around them, there are a few moments that do feel unnecessarily hysterical – including one particularly memorable incident in which Arthur screams in the Inspector’s face for no obvious reason (nearly giving the lady next to me a heart attack in the process). And Sheila’s horrified reaction to the photograph of Eva Smith, which sees her collapse in a muddy puddle before running, screaming, from the stage, feels a shade too dramatic to be believable.
But these moments are rare, and easily upstaged by some hugely powerful scenes – not least the moment that a crowd of silent onlookers appears out of the mist to hold the family to account, while the Inspector makes his final, desperate appeal, to us as an audience, and to society as a whole.
70 years after it was first performed in Moscow, An Inspector Calls is as relevant as it’s ever been. By choosing not to set the play in the Birlings’ safe, contained dining room, but forcing them instead to confront the real world they’re used to looking down on with disdain, Stephen Daldry cuts straight to the heart of Priestley’s political message. And it’s a message that will – and should – stay with us long after we leave the theatre and go back to our lives:
“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
An Inspector Calls is at the Orchard Theatre until 19th September.