An Inspector Calls. Playhouse Theatre, London. ****

Poster

Leaving the Playhouse at the conclusion of ‘An Inspector Calls’, I knew my thoughts wouldn't take the form of a conventional review so to speak. Most critics since the original Daldry production in 1992, have hailed it as an example of a production that changed the way directors interpret classic works, which is completely true; in fact the opening moments rated among the most impressive, evocative sequences I've ever seen in a theatre. There's nothing dated about it, unlike the feeling I got seeing ‘Phantom of the Opera’ not that long ago. However, in deciding not to revise the plot from my childhood beforehand, I found the feelings I had in those first moments of what may lie ahead, did not relate to the piece which unfolded before our eyes. 

J.B Priestley’s classic was written in 1945, in a time when Britain was recovering from World War II, and performed the following year in London. Judged by some as an outdated ‘drawing room’ drama it's clear, especially in Daldry’s most recent production, that the piece is anything but. In presenting the downfall of the social values of a Victorian middle-class family in 1912, set within a pre- World War I society, “An Inspector Calls” emerges not only as a critique of capitalism similar to Ibsen’s work, but also as a piece completely relevant to the lessons we are still ‘trying’ to learn today. As we watch these characters in the past, it is all too easy to hear it resonate in situations and places we see today. I think this provocation of thought and intellectual stimulation is where my initial emotional connection had an influence my experience in the theatre that night. After the first 10 minutes, it was clear what was required from the audience member was less emotional attachment and gut response, more analysis and academic consideration. This is why my thoughts vary according to objectivity and personal response, just as vividly as the juxtaposition of the production itself.  To justify this, its important to reinforce that my enjoyment of the piece was not overpowered by my personal expectation invoked through the young urchin children and the smoke and mirrors central to the opening sequence. 

Opening scene Photograph: Mark Douet

From a technical perspective, Stephen Daldry’s groundbreaking expressionistic concept for opening up the drawing room setting of the plot, forcing the family to air their dirty laundry in public, instantly demolishes the critics who disregarded the play when it was initially received in the late 40s. Couple this with Ian McNeill’s stunning design placing an Edwardian dolls house in an apocalyptic environment, representative of the destruction left in the wake of World War II, directly relating to circumstances of the play’s first audience, swarming with ordinary folks and urchin dressed children; Rick Fisher’s complimentary atmospheric, smoky lighting and Stephen Warbeck’s dramatic, emotional score. The juxtaposition between the mystical and the intellectual, pre-war 1912 and post war 1945 is complete. The brilliance of the technical collaboration brings impact and intensity in all the right places, enhancing the message of the piece symbolically, whilst also reinforcing the downfall and destruction brought to the Birling family on the fateful night in question. To refer once again to the opening of the production and the subsequent collapse of the house, these moments seemed almost mystical and more emotive when compared to the cultural awareness and current resonance held within the writing. We had to work hard from start to finish. 

To my knowledge, I attended the performance on a night where two understudies were performing as Mrs Birling and her son, Eric. Had I not been informed of this, I would have been none the wiser. All the cast performed with a real sense of ensemble, perfectly in tune with each other's rhythm. Carmela Corbett’s interpretation of Sheila, the type of character I usually loathe within a story due to the tendency to overact, provided just the right combination of poise, ignorance and immaturity to the role and the actor performing as Eric gave a gut wrenching intensity to his final scenes, especially having seen the naivety so prominent in the character in the early stages of the piece. Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole combines the arrogance and high moral values central to the character through drawing out the humour and darkness held within the dialogue. This role is key to holding the action together and Brennan carries the plot with gusto, paying attention to the rhythm and dynamics of the action. 

Ending Photograph: Mark Douet

I am really pleased that after all this time, I had the chance to finally see “An Inspector Calls”. After so many opinions, much praise and an entire history within the development of theatre in the 1990s I can say that the production stands the test of time, and is a sad reflection of our times. Today, most obviously, it reminds us of several things: the continuing refusal to understand the disagreements at the forefront of our society. However what we cannot ignore is the fact that after all this time, we continue to live in a world ravaged by war; we have to recognise that currently the only thing changed is that at the children we see on the news, running around dishevelled and dirty are, at this time in a different country. These children, this global destruction is no further from us simply because we are separated by water. Perhaps more officials should take note of the comment the play makes…and consider how we can learn from the mistakes of the past.