Given the endurance of the production, which had its London premiere at the National Theatre in 1992, it seems surprising that I had not seen it before, but somehow I managed it. However the reputation of the piece precedes it. The Billy Elliot director’s take on the play was acclaimed for breathing new life into J B Priestley’s oft-performed classic, and collected Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Revival, Best Director of a Play and Best Set Designer. Since then, having enjoyed several UK and international tours as well as repeat visits to London – one of which lasted six years – the production has become a benchmark for Priestley’s work, as the critics reminded us when Rupert Goold staged the playwright’s Time And The Conways at the National Theatre earlier this year.
An eerie, yet comical, thriller, An Inspector Calls centres on the prosperous, egocentric Birling family, who are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to fiancé Gerald when their self-congratulatory evening is interrupted by a visit from a police inspector. He informs them that a young woman has just committed suicide. Soon, his probing, incessant line of questioning gradually reveals that each member of the family unwittingly precipitated her death.
Of course the plot is not as straightforward as that, and Priestley ensures that heads are left spinning by the twists and turns that the inspector’s interrogations extract and a denouement which turns everything on its head. Even the aspects of the plot that can be foreseen are no less dramatic for it. As the inspector scrapes away the family’s veneer of respectability to reveal the ugly selfishness beneath, he leaves us with a morality tale about how we lead our lives and the impact our actions have on others.
In Daldry’s hands the piece becomes a metaphor-laden, expressionist piece of melodrama, with elements of film noir in Stephen Warbeck’s ominous music, Rick Fisher’s atmospheric lighting and the swathes of rain and dry ice that waft about the stage at crucial moments. The characters are almost caricatures; head of the family Arthur is a red-faced walrus of a man and his wife an exquisitely disdainful grande dame, while Gerald displays an evil laugh worthy of any comic book villain.
In keeping with this, MacNeil’s famous set is a cartoon-like abode drawn in miniature, which sits atop stilts like an ivory tower from which the Birlings are reluctant to come down. The house is MacNeil’s theatrical trump card, a visual metaphor which he reveals with a flourish after the Birlings are devastatingly deconstructed by the inspector.
Some of Daldry’s metaphors are less obvious than others; this may be a production to see more than once in order to fully grasp his vision. It is, however, an intriguing, clever piece of theatre that leaves you thinking about it long after the curtain call.