An Inspector Calls
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
J B Priestley’s classic thriller remains as true and relevant as ever; phenomenal staging and a refocussed epilogue unapologetically forces the audience to consider their own morals.
Whilst An Inspector Calls was written over 80 years ago, and has been a stalwart favourite of repertory theatre for decades, it remains a tour de force of social commentary that perhaps in current times is even more powerful and provoking as it ever was. Sadly, the original setting of Edwardian middle class with their grandiose beliefs of money equals entitlement is all too familiar when you look at the divide we currently face. Likewise, the refusal to learn from lessons presented so clear & true seems to be the ever repeating theme which drives the inequalities of society regardless of which decade.
Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Reader) has harnessed Priestley’s raw disdain for the bourgeoisie and presented it in a pared back style, allowing the audience to see past any glitz and glamour of material trappings and gaze unfettered into their self-centred souls. The presentation of the Birling residence, like a bizarre dolls house on stilts, plays with form and scale; the wealth & power is all pushed inside this grotesque, gaudy fake fairground funhouse, while outside, in the freedom of the stage, we have rain, fog, realism. That the real action takes place ‘on the street’ shows a power shift and how, when removed from their comfortable lairs, the rich and powerful flounder in the real world.
The story is of the wealthy Birling family; father Arthur (Jeffry Harmer – The Unexpected Guest, Emmerdale) is a typical middle class megalomaniac whose desires are fuelled only by social standing and the power derived thereof. His equally power hungry and social snob Sybil (Christine Kavanagh – Vera, The Diplomat, The Lark) shows complete disdain for anyone who she deems ‘not worthy’ or will not further her own climb. Their children, Sheila (the beguiling Evlyne Oyedokun) who has just become engaged to socialite Gerald Croft (Simon Cotton), and wayward Eric (George Rowlands) are clearly not yet indoctrinated into the family beliefs of power, money, elitism. Father Arthur constantly pushes his agenda that one should only focus on oneself, forget society, fate will deal the best hands to those who deserve them most. Before we are even exposed to the inspector and his horrific tale it is obvious that this family unit is dysfunctional at best, and at worst, already broken.
When Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan – Richard III, Shetland, Bad Boys, Taggart) interrupts the family engagement party, he is treated with scorn and derision by Arthur Birling, challenged with “do you know who I am” and dismissed out of hand. It is only as the Inspector begins to lay bare the grisly facts that he is afforded some degree of attention, more so from Sheila and Eric than the parents or Mr Croft. It is through the inspectors recounting, in very distinct, separate steps, that the family are each forced to reflect on their own actions in relation to a shared acquaintance, Eva Adams; Mr Birling sacked her, Ms Birling complained and had her sacked again, Mr Croft loved and left her, Eric used and abused her and Mrs Birling turned her away in her final moment of need – or did they? Desperate to assuage themselves of any sense of guilt or responsibility, they try to unpick the inspectors accusations, firmly in the belief that their own actions were simply a matter of circumstance and it was Ms Adams’ inevitable fate.
The epilogue, as the family still cling to their bigoted views of humanity in general, brings to the audience a chance to make their own decision – can society truly change for the good of all when there will always be those who aspire to a higher, ruling class?
With a truly unique set, some brilliantly lighting and powerful visuals throughout, the audience are never allowed to simply relax into watching this production, nor should they; the topics covered deserve and demand full attention. One of the very best productions I have seen for many years.
Note, the programme, produced by John Good, is a perfect companion to the show and great reading for students and fans alike.