This is a workmanlike, if sometimes too reverential revival of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. The merits of this landmark production still stand out, but it also is inevitably a product of its period now and perhaps should have been tweaked more before returning.
J.B.Priestley’s most famous play returns to London in a touring version of the classic Stephen Daldry production that had its first outing as long ago as 1992. We have a chance therefore to reassess a version that seems to have settled in for a stint of continuous performance and presence in different venues and countries that could rival The Mousetrap.
This is a play that cannot really be understood outside its historical context and setting. Though Priestley was never a member of the Labour Party, and indeed tried to found his own ‘Common Wealth Party’, his social thought was consistently left-wing, highly critical of 20th century capitalism, and grounded in concepts of community and solidarity that repudiated neo-liberal individualism and sought to overcome class distinctions. It was a response both to his Bradford upbringing and his writing about the effects of the Great Depression based on first-hand observation of English working class life. What he captures here explains more precisely than many a volume of social history the national mood swing in 1945 that rejected the war-hero Churchill and elected the Attlee government of 1945-51.
Priestley had touched on these themes before, but he never found a better fusion of all his interests than here: on the surface it seems a well-made family drama that then turns into a suspenseful thriller. However, gradually we realise that this is a symbolic expressionist piece that may not actually be a traditional realistic play at all, as time shifts multiply and the mysterious central character of the ‘inspector’ gains moral authority while simultaneously losing clear identity. Ultimately it is one of those plays that saves its most troubling and confronting moments for the collective mind of the audience as we leave the theatre.
On the face of it the plot is simple. The members of the prosperous and complacent Birling family are gathered to celebrate the engagement of the daughter of the house to the heir of an even larger fortune, thereby effortless completing the social ascent of this new Northern manufacturing dynasty. It is the heyday of Edwardian England. Into their midst comes the mysterious Inspector Goole to investigate the suicide of a young girl to whom they all turn out to have different forms of connection, despite the overt contrast between their vaunted respectability, and her gradual decline from factory girl to prostitute and ultimate despair.
The most troubling questions raised here are over social responsibility. If there is shared community then is there shared guilt too? How far does the duty we owe to others extend? If the socially respectable are discreetly corrupt how can we distinguish their status from those society brands formally as criminals? Which has priority – self-reliance or social conscience? All these questions are as pertinent now as they were in 1946, and Priestley does not suggest any easy answers as the issues flow back and forth between the member of the family and the ‘inspector’ whose role it is to invite them to look back over the implications of their unreflective, thoughtless actions.
Traditionally this play has been produced with fussy realism, as if it were The Voysey Inheritance, or another well-made Edwardian drawing-room comedy. Stephen Daldry and designer Ian McNeil gave it a whole new lease of life by playing up to the expressionist and non-realist elements in the drama and creating a technical tour de force which still offers continuous visual stimulus and surprise to viewers new to the play. The dolls’ house perched precariously above mean streets and poverty immediately and directly undermines the well-upholstered comfort and blithe assumptions of the Birling family before the action begins, and it also conveys the feel and tone of the Ealing Comedies too, very much of the same period and critical tone as the play itself.
However, on revisiting this famous production there are some drawbacks too that are now more obvious with the passage of time. In the crucial opening scene inside the house, where the characters are introduced, the effect of the walls and windows is such that we cannot entirely hear or see them as we need to. Moreover, the incursion and presence of non-speaking participants from the post-war world of 1945 seems unsubtle and unnecessary. These broad brush gestures are fine in large-scale spectacle such as the Olympic Games, but when the points are already made more subtly in the original text itself, they seem overdone. In some ways Daldry overdresses the play and underscores points too heavily in a wholly different way from the tired, literal productions of old.
The acting in this revival is a mixed bag. As the inspector Liam Brennan moves well from the clipped, caustic self-control of the earlier scenes through to the more full-bore passionate outrage of the later ones (not helped by the seemingly inevitable mobile phone interruption during his most important speech). Perhaps there needs to be a bit more of a sense of power held in reserve to lend the character the air of mystery which is part of the disconcerting hold he exerts over both the other characters and the mind of the audience. Clive Francis does an excellent job in conveying the bluster and peevish self-pity of the patriarch Arthur Birling. This is a fine-grained performance, particularly in the later scenes when he has to carry many of the final twists of the action.
As his redoubtable wife Sybil, Barbara Marten was somewhat disappointing. She certainly looked like the full gorgon, but in her duel with the inspector and elsewhere too she was somewhat underpowered. The conflict between her defiant and shameless individualism and the inspector’s invocation of compassion and community can be the climax of play, and when done with full commitment, as in a wonderful television performance by Margaret Tyzack some years ago, it is so. This was something of a missed opportunity.
The two Birling children, Sheila (Carmela Corbett) and Eric (Hamish Riddle) took their moments rather better. Each has to trace a path of development from spoiled brat through to more mature reflection, with a moment of crisis in the middle. Each negotiated these challenges with careful calibration, as did Matthew Douglas as Sheila’s fiancé Gerald. They offer a sense of lessons learned and perceptions enhanced that the older generation cannot grasp.
Much has been written over the years about the other creative contributions to this production: suffice to say that the costumes, the work of many hands, had all the period glitz required and then degraded and fell apart in line with the fortunes of the family; and the set in all of its component parts, was as ingenious and startling, as at first sight. Lighting and sound did their part too in evoking the world of the Blitz and blackout, especially at the beginning and the end of the play.
This is a workmanlike, if sometimes too reverential revival. The merits of this landmark production still stand out, but it also is inevitably a product of its period now and perhaps should have been tweaked more before returning. The production does not shock as it should, and once did; and the pace is sometimes too slow as well, especially in the first half, which has flat patches that lack intensity. Where the production and play do score is in showing that while the conflict between community values and individual self-assertion will always be with us as a conundrum every generation must wrestle with, the greatest moral lapse is in failing to learn from and assimilate the shocks and challenges to one’s values across the course of a single life.