Simon Ward reviews An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre
When Stephen Daldry blasted himself onto the scene with his reimagining of this JB Priestley warhorse in 1992, I was among the small band of naysayers who found his production alienating and unconvincing. Twenty-four years later, I am a convert.
Running without an interval for 1 hour 45 minutes it is compelling, mesmerising and unrelenting. The sound problems with the original production have been resolved and the doll’s house set is now an unalloyed triumph – capturing the gilded world of the opening and the characters’ retreat into the grotesque as they think their crimes have gone unpunished.
Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole is a masterclass in understatement, building to a devastating climax where he breaks the fourth wall to deliver Priestley’s message without sentimentality or mawkishness.
Daldry’s overarching idea is to set the play in a no-man’s-land between WWII when the play was written and 1912 when it was set. We open with an air raid siren and there is evidence of bomb damage on the stage and its surrounds. We encounter the show through the eyes of children who seem to have stumbled upon it in the aftermath of that air raid, and that frames the whole evening to appropriately sobering effect.
Other stand-out performances in addition to Brennan’s are Clive Francis as Arthur Birling and Barbara Marten as his wife – their smug complacency is as utterly believable as it is appalling.
The danger with Priestley, and this work in particular, is that it ends up preaching to the converted in a Corbynista-style echo chamber of self-congratulation. And of course it is a fable and a fairytale. But the success of this revival is that it transcends those issues to simply tell the truth.
An Inspector Calls runs at The Playhouse Theatre until 4th February 2017
Director Stephen Daldry
Designer Ian MacNeil
Lighting Designer Rick Fisher
Composer Stephen Warbeck
Associate Director Julian Webber
Producer PW Productions
Inspector Goole Liam Brennan
Mrs Birling Barbara Marten
Mr Birling Clive Francis
Gerald Croft Matthew Douglas
Sheila Birling Carmela Corbett
Eric Birling Hamish Riddle
Edna Diana Payne-Myers
Ensemble Geoffrey Towers, Benedict Salter and Beth Tuckey