In 1912, a wealthy family is throwing an engagement celebration; the doorbell rings, and into the house comes a police inspector. There has been a suicide, and he will not let anyone leave until he has questioned them closely.
It is a plot out of the ‘golden age' of English detective fiction, but where Agatha Christie's plots focused on working out who should be punished by the law, J. B. Priestley's 1940s play focuses on exploring how a person can be driven to their death by the seemingly random operations of social privilege and exclusion.
Each person in the room is confronted in turn by the inspector; some accept their responsibility, and some do not. And there is, as with all good detective stories, a twist in the tale.
But the play is also a kind of ghost story, and director Mary Papadima makes this explicit by bringing the woman (Isabella Marshall) onstage, a presence sometimes seemingly on the edge of visibility to the other characters, to re-enact some of the moments leading to her end.
Martin Johns' marvelous set manages beautifully to convey both a solid upper-middle-class reality and the disturbing social and perhaps other levels of reality surrounding it. The dining room playing area is claustrophobic-ally tight, with much of the stage dark and virtually unused. The floor is a different shape to the ceiling, which itself has huge working cogs and pistons running through it, disturbingly springing into action during the play.
Richard Hammarton's sound design and music, and Nick Beadle's lighting design make the most of these spooky moments. The effect is of a room poised on the edge of an abyss – which, metaphorically speaking, it is.
The performances give a strong sense of a particular privileged caste and its ways, helping to steer the play away from melodrama. Roger Delves-Broughton's patriarch is bluff even when his bluff is called. Maggie O'Brien as his wife is hauteur personified, even when she is telling how she turned down the pregnant woman's request for charity. Richard Galazka's Gerald, one half of the engaged couple, is convincingly brusque.
The younger characters – Laura Darrell's Sheila and Peter McGovern's Eric – react more emotionally to what they hear, and provide some energy as well as human warmth. Peter MacQueen's Inspector Goole is the coolest of the lot, and his careful impersonality gives Priestley's hard-hitting critique of pre-Welfare State reality even more punch.
This is a thought-provoking take on a play which reminds the comfortable drawing room of the world outside its window.