An Inspector Calls, is a haunting look at the gaps in society and this production is a timely and important reminder that not much has changed since its 1912 setting, its 1945 premiere or even when it debuted as a production in 1992 at the National Theatre.
Written in 1945, it is no doubt JB Priestley’s damning reminder of what society’s treatment of others can lead to. Following the second major world war in thirty years the family, the Birlings, are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Carmela Corbett) to Gerald Croft (Matthew Douglas) and the play opens with us watching them, as if they were dolls in a doll’s house, seeming happy and content but this can only last so long. As the males argue about their role in society, with Arthur (Clive Francis) telling his son Eric (Hamish Riddle) that it is every man for himself, the arrival of Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) and the literal opening up of the house reveal a lot more about this family than they ever intended.
Brennan’s Goole strikes the right tone, a man not just seeking answers for Eva Smith’s suicide, but a representation of doing good, even as the Birlings prove, we never quite manage to. There is a controlled anger that contrasts well with Arthur and Sybil, the fantastic Barbara Marten who plays the character as ice cold but brings out in the humour in her ridiculous airs and graces. Corbett’s Sheila is the character that develops the most but, sadly, the younger male cast’s performances felt very 1940s and thus quite hammy. It could be that actually as a play this piece has dated considerably and modern actors simply don’t know to approach it any other way and the contrast of their spoof radio comedy acting in contrast with the calm and classy portrayals from the other actors didn’t merge well at all.
I also questioned whether I had been exposed to too much 21st century Coup de Theatre because, whilst there are aspects of the set that are still stunning nearly 25 years on, I wanted to see more of the home and Ian MacNeil’s set takes it out of the drawing room and seemingly into the rain, which is a great metaphor but not what the 16-year-old me imagined when doing her GCSEs. I struggled with aspects of Stephen Daldry‘s (with associate director Julian Webber) production. I felt much of subtlety of Priestley’s piece was stripped away, with an ensemble cast seemingly watching over the Birlings. Priestley’s piece should be a claustrophobic look at society through one family’s eyes and, whilst this is a fantastic production to see in the New Year, it is a play that gives a lot and a production that doesn’t give as much.
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