Friday, 13 January 2017

An Inspector Calls

Fresh from giving us The Crown, Stephen Daldry re-ignites his original production to thrilling effect

Written by Sam Taylor

Most theatre lovers will have seen at least one production of JB Priestley’s drawing room classic, or even taken part in a drama group adaptation, and as it has recently been added to the GCSE syllabus, parents can expect to sit through more of the same.

It is a masterclass in time frames; deliberately set in Edwardian society, but written in 1945 against the social upheaval of wartime and postwar Britain. Classically, the play Sam-Taylor-colour-176has often been delivered as a ‘whodunnit’, with lots of bustles and genuflecting maids. A sort of comfortable/uncomfortable night at the theatre, with the mysterious Inspector Goole arriving unannounced at the home of rich northern industrialists and social climbers the Birlings, and then proceeding to interrogate them about their role in the downfall and subsequent death of Eva Smith, a destitute young woman.

Played straight, it is a morality tale of how excessive amounts of money and power can make monsters of us all, and that we need to strive for more equality to achieve peace. Three years before writing this play, Priestley had helped establish a new political party, the Common Wealth Party, whose driving agenda was for a new social conscience. He was also influential in developing the welfare state.

Stephen Daldry, fresh from delivering us the gem that is the £100 million TV series The Crown, first staged this version at the National Theatre in 1992 and this production remains as fresh as, or perhaps improves on, that first outing. True, there is no Kenneth Cranham playing Goole, but there is Liam Brennan, who occupies the stage with a barely disguised anger, arriving in his demob overcoat determined to find the truth.

And here is part of Daldry’s skill; we still have the bustles, we even have the fat-cat cigars, but he takes full advantage of Priestley’s own stagings by simultaneously setting it in 1912 with the Birlings squashed into their Edwardian doll’s house atop a Blitz-torn landscape circa 1945, while allowing its gaping social holes to resonate in the present.

If this sounds all too much like hard work, then fear not. It is a stunning visual treat layered upon a delicate delivery that hands Priestley’s essential message in canapé-sized bites until the denouement, when the whole party comes crashing down. In among this is also a tale of romance, or lack of it. Carmela Corbett is perfect as the drippy Sheila Birling, hellbent on marrying up a class. Matthew Douglas is so convincing as her caddish fiancé Gerald Croft that I did wonder if women might now cross the road to avoid him. Barbara Marten plays the grande dame Mrs Birling with frozen-faced aplomb and stands as a reminder that there is such a thing as too many pearls round one neck.

Until 25 March at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2: 0844-871 7631, 

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