It’s one of those plays whose status as a classic of the twentieth century English theatre repertoire can take you by surprise when you revisit it. It’s a drawing room drama all right, albeit a Northern industrial one, but the central character, Inspector Goole turns out to be less of a crimesolver than an alien, almost supernatural presence, compiling a charge sheet against the entire Birling family for their part in the tragic death of Eva Smith, a working class girl, and hence against the literally murderous nature of unbridled capitalism.
This is a reprise of Stephen Daldry’s celebrated 1992 production, in which the Birlings’ home had the dimensions of an overblown doll’s house, turning its occupants into grotesques, both unnatured by their avarice and imprisoned by its consequences. Like the inspector’s ghoulish presence, this setting visits a pervasive surrealism on the proceedings.
The house is less a home than a Gillraylike cartoon of a corrupt order; the ghoulish inquisitor is likewise exceeding his professional boundaries in so vilifying the family’s life-style here in Brumley before their alleged crimes have come to court.
Unless, that is, J. B. Priestley is convening his own, somewhat kangaroo court of public opinion. The inspector, enabled by one of the century’s most powerful authorial voices, is the prosecutor. There is no defence counsel other than naked self-interest, and we are the jury. There are even doubts over the identity of the family’s apparent victim, who, it is alleged, has been abused in every conceivable way by all the Birlings, up to and including Gerald, who is engaged to their daughter Sheila.
When watching these strange sequences unfold, it is worthwhile, perhaps even essential, to bear certain personal and historical factors in mind. The play was written just after the end of the Second War and set just before the outbreak of the First. So when Goole warns the Birlings, and us, that unless society changes its ways it will pay in “fire and blood and anguish,” the charge of retrospective prescience hangs heavy in the air.
Invalid Displayed Gallery
At the time Priestley wrote it, there were two Englands. There always have been, of course, but the divisions seemed all the more dramatic in the light of the bitterly won war. Politically, there was Winston Churchill and there was Clement Attlee; on the one hand a national hero and dynastic scion; on the other a mousey socialist with a Corbynesque charisma, or lack of it, depending on your point of view. Overseas observers found it hard to believe that such a national hero as Churchill had been summarily thrown out of office by the electorate. Those closer to home focused on profound domestic inequality, their ability to do so ironically sharpened by the class perceptions of military service. I, like many, grew up in a house divided, civil though the disagreements were. My Brazilianborn mother, a wartime nurse, was all for Churchill and my father, a workingclass London boy and Red Devil Paratrooper, was all for Attlee.
Socially and culturally, this division had a counterpart. Put crudely, there was P.G. Wodehouse, whose social realism of rural aristocracy fulfilled an escapist appetite, and then there was J. B. Priestley, Labour to his boots, whose passionate radio broadcasts in his series of Postscripts extolled the heroism of the common man, and woman, and were said to have outraged Churchill. In this context, the fact that producers shunned the chance of staging this play by an important English writer at
the height of his powers, does not seem quite so surprising. In the end – Red alert – it was premiered in the Soviet Union. Less a case of a prophet than a social historian not being honoured in his own country. Today the work, sometimes mistaken for one of Priestley’s socalled time plays, is picked over for contemporary messages by Eng Lit students. It also gets reassuringly vilified by the rightwing press for its alleged crudity, naivety, lack of credibility and related crimes.
However you look at it, this is an intriguing journey from Commie subversion to Classic English Thriller, and Daldry’s production is admirably faithful to the piece’s strange world. This is the skewed lens as an aid to perspective. Liam Brennan gives Inspector Goole just the right mixture of official authority and spooky otherness.
Avenging angel he may be, but the part is a devil, tipping over from forensic inquiry into didactic rant. Geoff Leesley and Caroline Wildi are excellent as the Birling parents, Arthur and Sybil, dissolving into emptiness like worthless shares or fallen houses. Likewise Katherine Jack as the poisoned fruit of their union. As in Daldry’s National production almost a quarter of a century ago, one of the unseen stars is designer Ian MacNeil, whose expressionist set hosts Priestley’s still awkward inquiries to perfection.
Review by Alan Franks
An Inspector Calls Overview
Winner of 19 Major Awards!
From Stephen Daldry, the Oscar-nominated Director of The Reader, The Hours and Billy Elliot, comes the multi award-winning West End production of J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller, An Inspector Calls.
Hailed as the theatrical event of our generation winning more awards than any other play in history, this landmark production from the National Theatre has thrilled audiences in the West End, on Broadway and throughout the world with its epic and wildly imaginative staging, raw emotion, evocative score, lashing rain and chilling suspense.
An Inspector Calls – UK Tour 2015 – ATG Tickets
When Inspector Goole arrives unexpectedly at the prosperous Birling family home, their peaceful dinner party is shattered by his investigations into the death of a young woman. His startling revelations shake the very foundations of their lives and challenge us all to examine our consciences.