“The way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together, like bees in a hive…”
It is 2016, 70 years after An Inspector Calls first opened in the West End – and in a year of turbulent politics, it is proving yet again to be one of the classics which never fails to reassert its relevance. Stephen Daldry reprises his original 1992 National Theatre production, complete with many of the same creative team: Ian MacNeil’s iconic doll’s house in the centre of a bleak wasteland and Rick Fisher’s contrasting lighting have all been painstakingly reproduced.
The Birling family have gathered to celebrate daughter Sheila’s engagement to the well-to-do Gerald Croft, cementing their position in high society. But the arrival of the mysterious Inspector Goole casts a terrible shadow over the evening’s festivities, as he investigates the death of Eva Smith, a girl who had died that evening after swallowing disinfectant. One by one, their carefully buried misdemeanours are exposed, and each is publicly cross-examined.
Liam Brennan brings great power to the role of the Inspector, drip-feeding the family little morsels of information, allowing them to incriminate themselves through their own unguarded reactions. The more they try to absolve themselves from blame, the more he unleashes his fury at their incapability to accept their role in her demise. There is a touch of Brecht with certain speeches delivered direct to the audience, clearly aimed at the Birlings, but also unapologetically reminding us of our own social responsibilities.
Clive Francis as Arthur Birling is tasked with many of the “hindsight” lines, which are delivered with blissfully ignorant conviction: “there isn’t a chance of war!” Barbara Marten channels her inner Dowager Countess as the caustic Sybil Birling, and she gives as good as she gets when questioned by the Inspector. Their unfaltering lack of remorse (except for their own self-pity) is a far cry from the reactions of the younger characters.
Hamish Riddle as Eric progresses from sneering entitlement to snivelling regret – via a generous serving of whisky. Meanwhile, Carmella Corbett as Sheila slides from precocious child to hand-wringing guilt, almost seeming to enjoy having been knocked off her pedestal. Matthew Douglas brings a flawed compassionate edge to Gerald Croft: sorry, but more sorry he got caught.
The final denouement will no doubt send chills down the spine of those watching the play for the first time (or who’ve forgotten the twist at the end), but for anyone already familiar with the plot, it casts the play in a fresh light, where the social commentary seems to have been cranked up to eleven. It’s not especially subtle in its delivery, but theatre has often “held the mirror up to nature” – and right now, that’s pretty important.
Review by Gail Bishop @gailebishop
(Photo courtesy of Mark Douet)