Review: An Inspector Calls at Playhouse Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

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.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: An Inspector Calls at the Orchard Theatre

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.

An Inspector Calls

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.

An Inspector Calls

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.