Since its 1945 premiere in, strangely, Moscow, J B Priestley’s thriller An Inspector Calls has become a perennial classic, remaining hugely popular with production companies and audiences, alike. It has always been regarded as a well written and solid thriller.
Then in 1992 theatre and film Director, Stephen Daldry created, for the National Theatre, a daring and radically rethought production with expressionistic influences which revealed hidden depths and meaning in the text and thus steered the play away from being merely a conventional thriller and more towards being stunning piece of high drama. Seventeen years later and following many awards, the production is, once again, touring the UK and it remains a real tour de force that continues to pack a deeply emotional punch.
Opening in 1945, an air raid siren signals the all clear and children play in the rainy street outside the 1912 set house of Arthur Birling (David Roper), his wife Sybil (Sandra Duncan), and son Eric (Robin Whiting), as they celebrate the engagement of his daughter Sheila to wealthy businessman Gerald Croft (Alisdair Simpson).
Into this cosy family dinner storms Inspector Goole, played energetically by Louis Hilyler, investigating the suicide of a local woman, Eva Smith. As the evening progresses the cosy life of the Birlings is utterly shattered both emotionally and physically and all the relationships are put under intense strain as, one-by- one Goole cross examines each member of the family, skilfully extracting truths and the part each person played in Eva’s death.
The entire cast are formidable in their talents and all deserve the upmost credit for their staggeringly good performances, but standing out amongst them is Marianne Oldham as Sheila Birling. Her transformation from giggly newly engaged girl to remorseful, intuitive woman is brilliant and, partly due to the writing and partly due to the direction, it is she who holds the piece together.
Daldry’s direction of the play cannot be faulted. The action is swift, the stage is used to maximum effect and his use of symbolism serves to heighten the dramatic narrative which thus increases the brutality of the family’s downfall. This is further reflected in Ian MacNeil’s stunning set which almost becomes a character of the play itself. The house sits on stilts, reflecting the tenuous nature of the family’s comfort and its dramatic collapse is a defining and iconic moment of this production.
There is the one slight downside to proceedings which isn’t, to be completely fair, the fault of the production. It is, in fact, too clever and symbolic for the teenage GCSE students the play attracts. On the night I attended the vast majority of the audience was made up of school groups many of whom demonstrated that they were not mature enough to fully engage with the intensity of the drama and as a result some impact was lost through inappropriate giggling, and constant extraneous noise. If I was to see this production again, and I would not hesitate to do so, I would certainly avoid booking for a weeknight performance in order to deliberately avoid school parties.
Since its premiere in 1992 this production has played five London seasons, toured the UK seven times, toured Australia twice and fitted in a Broadway engagement. Its enduring popularity owes as much, if not more, to the quality of the production as it does to the plays presence on the current GCSE English Literature syllabus.
J B Priestley would, I am sure, be proud of this unmissable production, which I am sure will continue to enthral audiences for many years to come.
Stunning and stirring stuff!