An Inspector Calls Review

17th March 2016

Review: An Inspector calls

Trevor Locke was at Curve to see J B Priestley’s play

Curve Theatre, 17th March to 23rd March
Our rating: ****

A gripping drama with a twist in the tale and a surprise ending

What we see on stage is a bewildering time warp of 1940s northern town realism somehow morphed into a 1912 drawing room drama. At one point towards the end of the play (which was performed at Curve in one sitting) the family mansion appears to be blitzed in a WWII air raid only to be magically restored to its former state a little later. The destruction of the house reflects and echoes that of the family who live in it as their lives are torn apart by the revelations blitzed out of them by the Inspector. The ruination of the house depicts the discrediting of the old social and political order. The family members are exposed as being complicit in the suicide of a destitute young woman who they, at first, deny all knowledge of until the Inspector cunningly brings out the truth – that the whole family has been responsible for the poor wretch’s demise, in one way or another.

An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet.
An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet.

Priestley is known for a lot of things: novelist, playwright, social commentator and essayist, broadcaster – his prodigious output was impressive. His left wing political views were credited with supporting the rise of the welfare state. A Yorkshireman, he served in the army in WW1 before attending Cambridge for his education. Priestley’s career took off with the publication of The Good Companions in 1929. An Inspector Calls came in 1945. The play was first performed in Russia and made into a film in 1954. Its revival by the National Theatre in 1992 secured its place in twentieth century theatrical history.

An Inspector Calls has been lauded as Priestley’s most famous and acclaimed play. It’s stark socialist stance led it to fall into disrepute during the UK’s more right-wing eras; it’s return today, in a more politically diverse climate, is a recognition of its wide appeal as theatre and its constant inclusion in school curricula and examination papers. It’s a highly engaging piece of drama with a gripping plot that has a twist and a surprise ending. It that respect it scores highly with the drama-going public.

The play is set in 1912 and takes place over the course of one day but the play within the play is set in World War 2. Somehow, in Daldry’s production, the two time periods provide contrasting lenses through which to view the plot. Priestley does not hold back from giving us a speech about the evils of capitalism and the moral failures of middle class society. At one point the stage lights go out and hard, monochromatic lighting puts the stage into stark relief as the Inspector harangues the audience about the importance of social responsibility. Factory owner Arthur Birling is portrayed as an arch capitalist, as at home in the Edwardian era as he is in the contemporary world where individuality is lauded over community values and the needs of the poor can easily be disregarded in the pursuit of individualism.

Priestly does not come across (at least in this play) as a Marxist-Leninist, but as a benign Wilsonian neo-socialist. He probably would not have looked out of place in the Blair government. Some of what he uses Arthur Birling for is to make us realise that the Victorian admiration for self-embetterment and the every-man-for-himself mind-set is just what Thatcherism (so to speak) wanted us to believe. I am not knocking the play; its canter across the moral high ground is, after all, what we are used to in a lot of Shakespeare.

Daldry’s production has a rather peculiar set, designed by Ian MacNeil. Strange sets have become familiar at Curve in recent times. Most of the play takes place in a cobbled street above which is the elegant family mansion of the Birlings, wealthy and influential citizens of Brumley (a fictitious northern industrial town.) At the start of the play we find the family at home, celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling. Members of the family are heard (and occasionally glimpsed) enjoying themselves in the parlour of the house, occasionally coming out on to the balcony to speak to people below them in the street. The walls of the house then open out like those of a doll’s house to reveal the grand interior. It is certainly a clever piece of stage design but all feels a bit surreal.

The actors in tonight’s show delivered creditable performances. Liam Brennan’s portrayal of Inspector Goole was sharp and coherent. Geoffrey Leesley’s Arthur Birling was very credible and full of character. The Sybil Birling portrayed by Caroline Wildi was viperous and acerbic when Sybil is put under pressure, although at other times she appeared rather cardboard. I particularly liked Matthew Douglas’s portrayal of Gerald Croft (somewhat Downton Abbey, in a good way.) Stephen Warbeck’s incidental music was very Hitchcock.

Spoiler alert. If you do not want to know the ending, stop here.

After experiencing the gradual disintegration of the Birling family, both their reputation, status and their home, the family members gather to take stock of what had just happened to them. They forensically pick over the evidence of the evening and conclude that it might all have been a hoax. Their misgivings are confirmed when they phone the Chief Constable and are told that there is no Inspector Goole on the force. A call to the hospital reveals that no young woman died there earlier in the day. They fall about laughing as though they had all been the victim of a practical joke. That is the twist. Then comes the surprise. Right at the end, a phone call from the police informs them that a (real) police inspector is on his way to see them to investigate the death (that evening) of a young woman who had swallowed disinfectant to kill herself. The plausible whodunnit suddenly becomes something else: a mystery, a supernatural ghost story – I don’t know. It was no less shocking.

An Inspector Calls Tour by J.B. Priestley, presented by P W Productions in association with A I C Tour (2015), The National Theatre’s award-winning production.
Director: Stephen Daldry
Designer: Ian MacNeil
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Associate Director: Julian Webber
Liam Brennan
Caroline Wildi
Geoff Leesley
Matthew Douglas
Katherine Jack
Hamish Riddle
Diana Payne-Myers

See also:

Outings (review)

Lord of the Flies (review)

King Charles III (review)