Stephen Daldry’s stage setting for J. B. Priestley’s classic, An Inspector Calls, shocked audiences upon its National Theatre debut in 1992. Over a quarter of a century later, its dramatic edge remains. In the midst of a dark, rainy and almost post-apocalyptic backdrop stands a topsy-turvy house. Reminiscent of a doll’s house, from inside we initially hear (though don’t see) the Birling family enjoying a happy family occasion. Inspector Goole waits in the wings; a shadowy, rather ominous figure, he stands in stark contrast against the seemingly carefree and rather smug inhabitants within. As the play unfolds, the action swiftly moves away from the house towards the front of the stage, turning the setting into a clever theatrical device that places both the Inspector and each family member, literally and metaphorically, on equal footing.
A tragedy has occurred: a woman has died in gruesome circumstances, and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that each member of the Birling family is implicated to some degree. Liam Brennan plays the titular inspector as quite a restrained character, relentless and unforgiving in his questioning, with his brusque Scots demeanour a good foil for the initially dilettante gathering. Appearances, however, can be deceiving and nothing is as it seems. The atmosphere soon takes on a more sinister tone, for no one is immune from Goole’s penetrating interrogation.
Though this may be a familiar story to many, Daldry’s approach is quite daring. By moving the action away from a stuffy Edwardian drawing room, the play and its characters are laid bare and its multiple layers will keep all enthralled and pondering. A lot of physical movement by the characters helps to sustain pace as the story unfolds. At times one can’t help feeling a sense of sympathy for those being questioned. Priestley’s construct is designed to provoke self-reflection and internal soul-searching as he delivers a strong socialist and anti-establishment message; in turn highlighting the mean spirit of the social-climbing pater familias, Mr Birling and the hypocrisy of the supposedly charitable Mrs Birling (Christine Kavanagh). She appears as the archetypal Edwardian matriarch, almost regal in her sumptuous claret ballgown, yet within half an hour, events reduce her to a snivelling heap on the floor. Daughter Sheila Birling is convincingly portrayed by Chloe Orrock, initially spoilt and vacuous, yet she undergoes the biggest transformation of all the characters, offering the only glimmer of hope from amongst a morally-bankrupt family.
Politically-charged in nature, Priestley’s campaigning for a fairer and more equal society finds new meaning and importance to a 21st-century audience. Written before the end of the Second World War, there are some points where the playwright’s message comes across as stereotypical and clunky, vilifying one echelon of society whilst sanctifying another. This is not only mitigated by Priestley’s storyline but also the sympathetic staging and highly effective portrayal of a family in crisis that this production gives its audience.
When the action is seemingly concluded, there is the final – and frankly delicious – twist in the tale. The suspenseful close of the play is accentuated by the fabulous and shocking set, which alongside the strong acting makes Daldry’s production so memorable. An Inspector Calls leaves the Birlings a changed family, the world once they one knew left in tatters around them.