I know The National Theatre’s production of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, directed by Stephen Daldry, has been collecting awards and accolades since its inception in 1992 but I am still not a fan.
I saw this first some eight years ago and I’m afraid it still leaves me cold.
The NT’s take on JB Priestley’s moralistic tale is somewhat self-important and Daldry plays the drama to the full with overblown gestures, screeching violins and right-between-the-eyes symbolism. And for an uninterrupted 110 minutes it was rather too stultifying for me but the masses of GCSE students in the audience seemed to love it.
And therein perhaps lies the secret of its long run. With the classic thriller on the exam syllabus year in, year out, this production has no subtlety so feeds lazy students the symbolism on a spoon and fills auditoriums on school nights with sweet paper-rustling, fidgeting, whooping teens. Damn I sound so fusty.
With dialogue slow and ponderous, nothing can be missed.
Ian MacNeil’s cobbled street setting is atmospheric but the oddity of the Birling’s house, set up on stilts and which opens dolls’ house-like to reveal the Edwardian dining room within when required, is surely too small or was that another piece of symbolism I failed to appreciate? It just seemed odd to watch the heads of the characters through the upper floor windows and see them squeeze out of half size doors.
With the initial encounters with the inspector conducted by the stereo-typed family from their lofty eyrie of snobbery and well-to-do-ness, he soon has them literally in the gutter and drags them through the mud.
Plodding dialogue, interspaced with much-needed moments of comic relief, lead us by the nose to the ultimate fall and rise (literally, unfortunately) of the house of Birling.
The Chief’s Karen Archer is most Lady Bracknell-esque as the unrepentant Sybil Birling while Geoff Leesley convinces as the upwardly-mobile Mr Birling.
The ubiquitous Tom Mannion is laconic as the ghoulish Inspector Goole, Kelly Hotten (Beatrice in Lifetime) waxes and wanes as the spoilt daughter whose social conscience is switched on by the experience (intuitiveness which compels her to strip to her petticoat in the street in another scream out loud symbolic act); Sir John Gielgud Bursary Award winner Henry Gilbert overplays as the foppish scoundrel Eric while John Sackville brings a steady hand to the part of fiancé and general worker-out Gerald Croft.
With Janie Booth expressive in her silence as Edna and the massed menacing supernumeraries completing the line-up, I am disappointed that the overall effect is so dated. If Shakespeare can be given a modern twist then surely Priestley’s iconic social conscience tour de force deserves to be made more than a pedantic recitation of motif and denouncements.
Now the bits I don’t get: although set in pre-war Britain, MacNeil’s set, air raid sirens and the mute chorus are clearly Second World War - why?; and why, other than by dint of Priestley’s fervent socialism, is Birling painted so very black for having refused to increase the salaries of his whole workforce by 12.5% when he already pays the going rate? Listen up coalition.