Stephen Daldry’s groundbreaking production of An Inspector Calls acquired legendary status when it was first performed at the National Theatre in 1992. Having completed yet another national tour, it’s now back in the West End, and as powerful and relevant as ever. In fact if anything, given the current sorry state of the world, the play’s message of social responsibility speaks to us now even more than it did 24 years ago.
Though J.B. Priestley’s story is set in the early 20th century, the brilliance of Daldry’s production and Ian MacNeil’s astonishing set is that the events unfolding before us could be taking place anywhere, at any time. In 1912, the well-to-do Birling family are enjoying a dinner party in their elegant home, which resembles a large dolls’ house perched precariously above a dark, rainy street from the 1940s, when the play was written. But the family’s celebration of daughter Sheila’s engagement is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector, bearing the tragic news of a young woman’s suicide… One by one, the mysterious Inspector Goole forces each member of the family to confess his or her part in the woman’s downfall, and draws them away from their luxurious surroundings to face judgment from a silent audience of “supernumeraries” – men, women and children to whom the Birlings would never usually give a moment’s thought.
The pouring rain, creeping mist and Stephen Warbeck’s ominous music help to build the tension towards an explosive climax and a final direct plea from the Inspector, delivered with genuine emotion by Liam Brennan as he begs us all to remember the responsibility we have to each other. But the story doesn’t end there, and a glimmer of hope can be found in the despair of the Birling children as they stand alongside the family maid Edna (played with quiet dignity by Diana Payne-Myers) and watch the others climb, cackling like pantomime villains, back into their wrecked house.
As the Inspector, Liam Brennan embodies the very heart of the play, a gruff Scotsman who both ridicules and rages at these people who seem so stubbornly unaware of the damage they’ve caused. Clive Francis cuts a frail but defiant figure as the patriarch Arthur, and there are strong performances from Barbara Marten and Carmela Corbett as mother and daughter – one refusing to acknowledge her guilt, the other readily embracing it with appalled horror.
J.B. Priestley’s political stance as a socialist is well-known, and not at all glossed over in this production. But the story is not just about politics; it’s about humanity. This is the third time I’ve seen the play, but without a doubt it’s the most powerful. Priestley might perhaps have hoped that by 2016 his play would be redundant, but the events of this week show it’s anything but. We live in a world where intolerance and self-interest are increasingly the norm – and as long as that’s the case, this play will continue to resonate.
An Inspector Calls is at the Playhouse Theatre until 4th February 2017.