JB Priestley’s most famous play might appear to be full of self-serving characters of little interest to a modern audience. Yet director Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls reveals it to be far from a museum relic. In fact, it’s a real gem.
The play was originally written for a socially concerned post-war public and set in the prosperous 1912 home of the Birling family. The arrival of Inspector Goole interrupts an engagement party with news which shatters, for some of them at least, their comfortable perception that they are a “nice family”. This version, first brought by Daldry to the National Theatre in 1992 as his debut production, invests in Priestley’s obsession with time’s non linear qualities through costumes that reflect 1912, the 1940s and the present day. Mother and daughter, Sybil and Sheila Birling, are notably doll-like in 1900s garb, whilst Goole wears an almost modern-looking raincoat. History, these costumes suggest, is far-reaching, with individual and global acts having everlasting consequences.
The plot is simple: Goole (Liam Brennan) reports that Eva Smith, a woman everyone in the Birling family has links with, has committed suicide after a chain of events set in motion by Arthur, who sacked her when she headed up a strike at his factory. Gerald Croft, Sheila’s husband to be and Arthur’s future business partner, is also implicated. However, Sheila (Carmela Corbett) and her drink-fuelled brother Eric (Hamish Riddle), are divided from the others in their responses to Goole’s angry charges about their own involvement in her downfall. On the whole they are compassionate and more willing to assume responsibility. Barbara Marten’s Sybil sum up the parents’ attitudes; when she is accused of moral ineptitude by Goole she resorts to cool, hard stares as answers.
Matthew Douglas’ Gerald Croft, meanwhile, appears to be the only character to immediately accept his own role in the tragic affair. We soon realise, however, that his remorse is occasioned only because he fears a public scandal. Once it looks like absolution is in sight, he quickly reverts back to cheerful pigheadedness.
Responsibility is a tough concept to make dramatic, but Daldry’s production goes one better and makes it almost sexy. There is the suggestion that Goole and Sheila might be attracted to each other as the latter starts to undergo a spiritual awakening. There is an ease to the moment when they stand almost nose to nose in some unspoken recognition, before Goole dismisses it.
Ian MacNeil’s Wendy house on stilts, with its undersized doors and windows, serves to accentuate the literal big headedness of the Birlings and Gerald. Again the dual presence of 1912 and the 1940s is felt. Symbolically, the stilts elevate the house from the waste and bones of others that have made Birling’s wealth possible, but it also functions more literally as a Blitz landscape. When the house cracks open as Birling’s philosophy of individualism is unpicked, the rift seems permanent. Yet its ultimate reversal underlines Priestley’s idea that time is cyclical and repetitive, an idea reiterated through Rick Fisher’s lighting design on MacNeil’s unchanging vista. Humans keep making the same mistakes under an indifferent sky.
But this might well not be Daldry’s philosophy. The film noir atmosphere (in particular Stephen Warbeck’s swelling Vertigo-like chords) constantly reminds us that this is a play and a trick. At one particular point the lights come up and blankets are thrown over the worn-out and distressed Birling family as they take respite from the rain, like actors on a film set. Like a director, Goole waves his hands and indicates the music should be switched on or off. People can choose different, less selfish outcomes next time and this is echoed when the curtain comes down near, but not at, the play’s end. Priestley might be obsessed with cycles that never change, but perhaps Daldry is not. His metatheatrical tricks near the end break the concept that there’s only one way to conclude this play and it brings with it a message of hope.
An Inspector Calls is on at the Playhouse Theatre until 4th February 2017. Click here for more details.