Stephen Daldry’s celebrated production of J.B. Priestley’s most famous play makes a welcome return to London’s West End for a short run at the Playhouse Theatre.
A classic piece of ‘drawing room’ theatre, the play follows the unravelling of the mystery behind a young girl’s suicide. An inspector comes to speak to the Birling family on the evening of an engagement dinner celebrating the daughter of the house, Sheila, and Gerald Croft. One by one, a connection between the girl, Eva Smith, and each in attendance is made – the inspector blaming the family’s actions for her painful death. But is everything as it seems?
Set in 1912, a time of rising tensions in the lead-up to the First World War, the play questions the upper classes’ refusal to take responsibility for their actions, as well as their attempts to justify bad behaviour when it seems there are no actual consequences. The Birling family’s disregard for the working classes is a reflection of how Priestley saw society as a whole. Only the two children of the family seem willing to recognise their mistakes & change their ways in the future. The parallels between the play & the current state of the world are undeniable: the wealthy appear to be free to live without regulation, which in turn makes life difficult for people on a more modest income (tax avoidance is a good example). The play’s reappearance could not be more timely.
Ian MacNeil’s design is absolutely breathtaking. Rather than simply setting everything within the Birlings’ drawing room, the set depicts a dark & miserable street with one house in the background and the Birlings’ centre stage in the foreground. It is a bit disproportionate, giving a feel of a slightly menacing dolls’ house. Initially, the family are shut off from the world and we are on the outside looking in – but as the inspector is invited in everything opens up, unexpectedly, allowing us into their home.
There are some quite spectacular effects throughout, but most notably as the inspector makes his final speech – making the Birling home come crashing down with his words. Rick Fisher’s lighting design plays a big part in this, as well as setting the atmosphere from the very beginning. Stephen Warbeck’s score is integral at moments of heightened tension, bridging the gap between acts seamlessly.
Carmela Corbett takes Sheila Birling on an incredible journey. Starting out carefree & aloof, she is quite easily convinced by the inspector’s story and picks up his methods quickly. Her genuine regret & wish to mend her ways, alongside brother Eric (Hamish Riddle) is a genuinely heartfelt moment.
The standout performance comes from Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole. He makes his presence felt from the off, and directs events masterfully; Brennan ensures that Goole is always in control of the situation, one step ahead. His injections of humour are welcome in a play that deals with such weighty topics, but it is his final speech that is the most compelling & moving moment of the play.
My verdict? A timely run of an ever-relevant play, with terrific production values & top class performances – you absolutely must see it.
An Inspector Calls runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 4 February 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.