JAMES WITHERSPOON reviews ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the Playhouse Theatre.
An ostensible cultural icon and school set text, J.B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls has enjoyed over 60 years of dramatic presentation, academic study, and fierce critical analysis. Regularly performed across the country, this latest staging at the Playhouse Theatre by the Thames is Stephen Daldry’s reincarnation of his own revolutionary 1992 National Theatre production. This restaging proves Dominic Cavendish’s assessment: that ‘An Inspector Calls always speaks to the changing political moment’, particularly in Daldry’s explosive incarnation.
Daldry merges the worlds of peace and war by planting the action—originally set in 1912—in the context of the London blitz. Initially, the audience is offered only glimpses of the dystopian murk beyond the theatre curtain. Immediately downstage, children shield themselves from air raid blasts, peering under the curtain as if to find solace in the pre-war setting. When they kick a battered radio, sinister music booms throughout the auditorium and the theatre curtain rises, revealing an Edwardian house sitting on stilts in a crater amidst the shattered London landscape. Juxtaposed against the surrounding chaos, the inside is an affirmatively Georgian period dining room.
The out-of-place house and its inhabitants’ laughing dismissal of the prospect of war provides the play’s ultimate dramatic irony. Daldry’s ominous fusion of eras creates an expressly Hitchcockian atmosphere: we are filled with a sense of dread we can never quite place but are constantly aware of.
The Birlings are celebrating the engagement of their daughter to a wealthy businessman when—illuminated by a spotlight and with the iconic trench coat and fedora hiding his features—the domineering Inspector Goole appears at their door. The Inspector mercilessly puts forward a Pandora’s Box of questions that will send the Birlings’ family life crashing down around them—quite literally in this restaging of Daldry’s explosive pyrotechnics. Ultimately, the set crumbles in on itself, hurling smashed crockery, bottles, and furniture all over the floor as the house upends itself.
Goole spends an hour righteously interrogating and viciously ranting at the wealthy family about the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith. As the play goes on, we learn that every member of this dynasty has played some part in her demise. Clive Francis and Barbara Marten, as the authoritarian Mr and Mrs Birling, present particularly impressive depictions of two people shrouded in denial. Who is the victim? Increasingly, the strands weave together to present Eva Smith as an embodiment of an entire subjugated underclass during the First and Second World Wars—a class, Goole implies, destroyed by the indifference of the wealthy.
It’s a whodunit in nuclear meltdown, a breakdown of the integral concept of a murder mystery, that somebody is killed and somebody is guilty. Reversing the conventions of murder mystery, the play ends with questions rather than answers: who should take the blame? Who was the inspector? Who was it that died that night in the morgue?
An Inspector Calls is more than a relentlessly entertaining, tense, and night out. Daldry’s temporally confused, apocalyptic staging reinforces that Priestly’s diatribe against a deluded, self-serving elite is urgently relevant today. In an age where Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen play star roles, it’s not hard to see parallels with issues of the 1930s. The stuffy aristocrats in Priestley’s 1912 version missed it; their equivalents in 1940 missed it; and, now, Daldry appears to be suggesting that we’re missing the same thing in 2016. It’s a sobering thought.
Taken in its entirety, this production of An Inspector Calls is something quite extraordinary. An incredible staging of an incredible play, and a talented cast of actors combine to create a surreal, noir soup of morals quite unlike any theatrical production I have seen for quite some time.
An Inspector Calls is at the Playhouse Theatre until 4th February 2017.