An Inspector Calls is one of those plays you could easily assume to be a safe option. With excellent writing, an exciting story and a place on the GSCE English Literature syllabus, it’s also something you suppose you’ve probably seen, whether or not you have. I, for one, remember a perfectly pleasant rendition of JB Priestley’s 1945 thriller, set in 1912, being performed like an Edwardian Midsomer Murders at my local theatre back in Kent. But this proclivity to preserve the era in aspic is rarely indulged any more, ever since Stephen Daldry introduced his version back in 1992.
The film and theatre director, known for Billy Elliott, The Hours and so on, blew Priestley’s inspector out of the water when he introduced his highly stylized, utterly unforgiving imagining – the hype around it has always been incredible. All the same, I couldn’t quite fathom what a director could have done to the play to make it quite so different, quite so affecting, quite so bold, and this made its current run at The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue even more intriguing. And now I must sign up to the fan club because you need to see it to believe it: this is theatre at its very best. It takes the author’s writing, loves it, appreciates it, and with the firmest of hands, molds it into the most uncomfortable, the most dramatic of accounts so that its essence is not only preserved but shoved (very cleverly) in the audience’s faces.
Kudos must be given to Ian MacNeil, whose set doesn’t just bring Daldry’s vision to life, but is a feat of engineering in itself. Among the debris of a bomb crater is a vast doll’s house, into which we peer through the windows to see the wealthy Birling family at a celebratory dinner for the engagement of daughter Sheila. The oversized adults look both comical and grotesque, and one instantly takes a dislike to this self-indulgent, carefree bunch basking in candlelight compared to the street urchins outdoors, who run and play among the detritus down below; their presence – though silent – instantly highlights the overriding theme of social inequality. From the get-go, we see the Birlings for the nasty specimens they are: here they are in their ivory tower, worried for themselves alone and recklessly unconcerned by any sense of the social duty that is morally expected to accompany privilege. Bar the lack of a welfare state back then, the tensions created by such disparity between rich and poor are as ubiquitous now as when the play was both set (just prior to the First World War) and written (at the end of the Second). It makes Priestley’s mysterious inspector, who prowls onto the smoky set through the audience, an immediate hero despite his dubious identity: he belongs to our world, peering up to the family just like we are and valiantly forcing them to come down to our level for interrogation and bringing them out of their comfort zone in every which way.
In this role, Liam Brennan delivers his words in something of a modern style, his exasperation with the family seeming to stir up a dark, rugged sort of anger in him. As he takes each member through the deplorable deeds for which he is attempting to hold them to account, he is rough-handed, with a sardonic (not to say astonished) sense of humour. Brennan even managed to hold his nerve when some idiot’s mobile went off right in front of him as he stood front and centre stage to deliver his final adage – the crux of Priestley’s cautionary tale. You really felt for him at that moment.
Barbara Marten sends shivers down the spine with her icy matriarch (who would without doubt beat Downton’s Lady Violet in a fight) and Clive Francis carries the twitchy energy of a self-made man trying to seem at ease climbing the social ladder. Their obnoxious children are played with plausible élan by Carmela Corbett and Hamish Riddle, both making their professional debuts in the West End. The latters’ bumpy course to ethical lucidity marks a notable difference between the younger generation who will have to live and come to terms with the society as they fashion it, as opposed to their parents, who want nothing more than to maintain the status quo that suits them so well. The increasingly red-faced Matthew Douglas as Sheila’s new fiancé Gerald seems torn between the two sides – moments of soberness spreading over him, battling with his inclination towards his inbuilt selfishness.
When the Birlings’ world comes crashing down around them – quite literally – it is affecting not just because of the theatrics of the moment, but due to a remembrance of the terrible suffering society was to endure in the wars to follow and the realization that, even now, we haven’t all fully learnt those lessons. It leaves one in a pensive mood, to say the least. But also entertained and, as Priestley intended, thrilled to the bone.
An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre, London, until 4th February 2017. For more info and tickets, visit the website.