An Inspector Calls
Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Saturday 12 November 2022
Stephen Daldry’s iconic production of JB Priestley’s wartime plea for social responsibility was revolutionary when it opened in 1992. It swept all before it in terms of awards and has been remounted numerous times. Set on the eve of the First World War, it details the breakdown of a wealthy and complacent family when a mysterious policeman confronts them with their misdeeds, based on entitlement and disregard for humanity. High production values and an authoritative cast combine with the lavish, technically dazzling staging to hold the audience’s attention throughout its uninterrupted 1 hour and 45 minutes running time. Nevertheless, I am not sure Priestley’s message, already very clearly laid out in the script, is best served by all the heavy symbolism and the underlining this production provides.
From time to time, a director takes a well-known, even dated, piece by the scruff of the neck and produces a staging that reinvigorates and almost reinvents it, giving it a new relevance. It would be hard to think of a more emphatic example of this than Stephen Daldry’s blockbusting National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls.
J B Priestley was a hugely influential novelist, essayist and dramatist, particularly through the 1930s and 40s. His plays that explored different concepts of time were hugely successful and his comedy When We Are Married is enduringly popular. An Inspector Calls has a particular place in his canon; a powerful drama that makes a plea for compassion, tolerance and social justice, with just a hint of the supernatural. Its message was timely then, on the verge of the creation of the Welfare State, and one could argue is just as timely now.
In 1992, it was venerated but more likely to be produced in regional theatre and by amateur dramatic societies. it was an unlikely choice for a fringe director making his debut at the prestigious National Theatre. Nevertheless, its phenomenal success is a matter of record, both in Britain and the US.
The play opens with an air raid siren and a bedraggled theatre curtain. Some children in 1940s clothing are sheltering in the theatre and one raises the curtain to reveal a bleak cobbled street, in the pouring rain. in the centre, raised off the ground, is an imposing house, oddly scaled, like a large doll’s house.
It is 1913 and a wealthy mill-owner and his family are celebrating the engagement of the daughter to the son of another, titled, mill owner. Self-made man, Arthur Birling, is expounding his philosophy of ‘every man for himself and devil take the hindmost’ and dropping hints of his potential impending knighthood. The party is interrupted by the arrival of a Police Inspector, who wants to interview the family about the suicide of a young woman who once worked for Birling.
The Inspector interviews all the family in turn, establishing that each of them has played a part in the girl’s decline and demise, either through selfishly pursuing their own interests or through careless disregard or cruelty.
Doubt creeps in and, against the wishes of the children who have been radically changed by the experience, the parents set out to rebuild their walls and their self-satisfaction. Then, the telephone rings…
The Inspector is a beautifully-judged and compelling performance by Liam Brennan. Arthur is powerfully played by Jeffrey Harmer as harsh, self-centred and complacent, Matching him in smugness and self-satisfaction is his hypocritical wife Sybil, played with great authority and aristocratic bearing by Christine Kavanagh. Priestley pulls no punches in portraying them as archetypes of selfish privilege, with no redeeming features; in fact the script shows them as incapable of redemption. The smug fiancé, played by Simon Cotton, Evlyne Oyedokun’s self-centred daughter and the damaged, dissolute son, played by George Rowlands are more nuanced figures, well-portrayed by the actors. At this performance, understudy Beth Tuckey gives a striking performance as a mute servant, bent almost double, humbly waiting on the family, none of whom even look at her.
In reviewing the piece thirty years on, it presents a dilemma. Its relevance, power and importance in 1992 cannot be disputed, any more than Daldry’s brilliant, ongoing career in theatre and films. However, to state the blindingly obvious, this is 2022.
It is normal for stagings of opera and ballet to be preserved and recreated for many years. Searching for parallels in drama, however, I could only think of The Mousetrap and I would be reluctant to associate this once innovative and influential production with that quaint, unremarkable period piece that simply endures because it endures.
There are various devices which seem a little self-consciously symbolic. Initially there is no way up to the house from the street. The Inspector stands up an apparently derelict staircase, thereby establishing a bridge. Reinforcing the family’s elevated view of themselves, the Inspector rarely enters the house, instead bringing the family down to be interviewed in the street.
The destruction of the family by the revelation of their failings is graphically symbolised by the partial demolition of the house, admittedly, a striking coup de theatre. Throughout, other figures dressed in 1940s clothes appear and disappear, ominous ghosts of the future. At one point, the Inspector stops the action then stands and delivers a speech, almost a lecture, to the audience.
I found these touches a little over-emphatic. Priestley was never obscure or even excessively subtle when getting his message across. I’m not sure it needed to be reinforced in this way. I do not know whether I would have been more moved by this production if I had seen it in 1992. I can only say that I was less engaged than I had hoped to be, seeing it today. I couldn’t help but wonder how this play, set in 1913, written in 1944 and staged in 1992 was viewed by the younger audience members through these three degrees of separation.
Review: Jonathan Cash
Photos: Mark Douet
An Inspector Calls plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal from Tuesday 8 – Saturday 12 November 2022. Tickets are priced from £15.00 and can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.