Seventy years ago, J B Priestley’s thriller An Inspector Calls was first staged in the UK. Twenty-five years ago, Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed, progressive production opened at the National. His approach shook up the insular, drawing room script in order to highlight the selfish elitism of the middle and upper classes and has been regularly staged since 1992. Now, in a post-Brexit, post-Trump 2016 punctuated by hate crime, polarised political views and gaping social inequality, Daldry’s production about the death of a working class woman known to all members of a posh family still feels relevant. Though there are some clunky moments and miss-matched performance styles, the crusade for accountability and justice that drives the plot keeps this play firmly in the present within a stunning production concept.
Daldry’s interpretation manifests through Ian MacNeil’s design that takes much of the action out of the Birling family home and into the dark, wet street below. Copious fog and treacherous cobbles interfere with their joyous engagement celebrations and ruling class entitlement, endowing the inspector with more power as the Birlings are actually destabilised. The family and their guests are drawn out of the warm comfort of their stilted home that quickly becomes remote and inaccessible, and made to face the dirty secrets that Inspector Goole extracts from each of them in a landscape of damp despair. As their individual facades collapse, so does the home that protects and elevates them from the working classes, the people of the streets. Some of the set transitions are a bit mechanical, but it’s otherwise a powerful visual metaphor and one that’s excellently executed.
The cast’s performances are good, though there are a few different styles. Barbara Marten’s matriarchal Sybil Birling is comedically melodramatic, earning a laugh whenever she speaks. Considering the gravity of the play’s message, this is a strange choice and one that clashes with the largely naturalistic work from the rest. Liam Brennan is an excellent Inspector Goole, earthy and immoveable. Clive Francis is a somewhat frail Arthur Birling, though his vocal power and characterful rage keep him in constant battle with the inspector.
This visually striking production is still relevant what with Priestley’s attacks on the British class system and the casualness with which the upper classes and government treat the lives of the working class and those down at heel. The energy, pace and tension keep it from descending into stale playacting that dances around a real, serious problem and the high production values give it popular appeal and spectacle. With hope, its wide reach will have a big impact and remind audiences that the unseen, working girl in the play is the entire population of impoverished people in this country at the mercy of those with more financial power.
The Inspector Calls runs through 4 February.
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