An Inspector Calls Tour – Image: Contributed
Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre
Performance Date: 21 January 2020
Writer: J. B. Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Sam Dunning
Star Rating: ★★★1/2
1945 saw the first iteration of already well respected and successful J B Priestley‘s new play, An Inspector Calls. It immediately became a favourite and it’s blunt and open depiction of the class divide, as well as the clever interlinked story with addictive twists and turns, cemented it as a classic of the future. In 1992 it was revived for a production at the National Theatre and subsequently a national tour a decade or so after that. This latest touring production is also directed by the mind behind those two versions, Stephen Daldry, who left audiences shocked but pleasantly surprised with his new-age and alternate recreation back in the 90s and continues to do so now.
Set in the early 1910s, the piece traditionally takes place solely in the drawing-room of the Birling family, an upper-class and highly privileged group of people who discover, during an unexpected and somewhat amazing visit from a police inspector, that they are all somehow linked with the unfortunate suicide of a young woman.
Daldry’s production takes things outside the warmth and security of the home, and out into the dark, damp and unwelcoming streets. This is done by an innovative and clever set, where the initially closed home ‘opens up’, and combines the inside with outside. The removal of the family from their home serves not only to make the Birlings feel out of their comfort zone but also to somewhat lower them to the level of those less privileged. It works beautifully, removing the individuals from their regular surroundings and really making each feel appropriately uncomfortable.
There is an attempt to develop this idea further by using various extra ‘characters’ in the piece, who seem to be visible to those in the lead roles but never speaking or really interacting with them. They seem to represent the poorer classes and also could be intended/interpreted as the other “John and Eva Smiths” that Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) alludes to late in the show. The addition of these people (credited as ‘Supernumeraries’) can be quite distracting and unnecessary at times, not seeming to really add anything so perhaps is a step too far.
Brennan in the titular role is superb. His delivery, timing and rare subtle comedic quips draw the audience in and hit the demeanour of the inspector perfectly. The other members of the cast (Jeffrey Harmer as Arthur Birling, Christine Kavanagh as Sybil Birling, Chloe Orrock as Sheila Birling, Alasdair Buchan as Gerald Croft and Ryan Saunders as Eric Birling) all do a good job of being suitably unlikeable and gel as a family. The depicted relationships and discussions/arguments are painfully familiar and the performers all accurately exude the airs and graces of those who ‘are better than others’.
There are issues with the production. The opening depicted by three child Supernumeraries doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the initial discussions of the family (although not integral to the story) are quite muffled as take place within the home prior to it opening up.
The occasional violent physical interactions are cheaply contrived and some of the dialogue (again particularly during the more aggressive and heated moments) is delivered a little fast making it hard to understand. That aside, the story is still fabulous and portrayed brilliantly so the negatives don’t have much of an influence. It should also be noted there is no interval so the three acts run as one – this could be to avoid the level of drama and tension dropping but does result in audiences enduring an extended period sat down.
The piece is still incredibly enthralling and just as poignant as ever, nearly 75 years on from its first performance. It is no surprise it is regularly a featured text for generations of schoolchildren as the symbolism and underlying meanings and messages make it a perfect play to both study and to discuss. However, that by no means makes it something that sits in the realms of “something I did at school”;
An Inspector Calls is enjoyable for a broad spectrum of ages, backgrounds, and interests, and promises a pleasant evening at the theatre.
Runs until: Saturday 25 January 2020