An Inspector Calls

JB Priestly’s much beloved, taught-in-schools play, An Inspector Calls, is a perennial favourite with British theatre-goers. As the Birling household celebrate their daughter’s engagement to a very eligible young man, the mysterious Inspector Goole arrives. Informing them that a woman has committed suicide tonight, the Inspector begins to unravel the mystery of her life and death, and how the Birling family might be involved.

As visual images go, this one is certainly striking, and the idea it conveys perfectly mirrors the key theme of the play: the Birling family sit in their tiny, precarious box while the signs of poverty and real life surround them.

This show follows in the footsteps of Stephen Daldry's 1992 production, and features a radical stage design. As the script requests, the play is usually set in a 1912 middle class drawing room. In this version, the drawing room is a tiny tree-house suspended on stilts, which eventually opens up to reveal the interior. Surrounding it, and taking up most of the stage, is the street outside; the cobbled streets, impoverished children and a large telephone box creating a stark contrast with the tiny, plush drawing room.

As visual images go, this one is certainly striking, and the idea it conveys perfectly mirrors the key theme of the play: the Birling family sit in their tiny, precarious box while the signs of poverty and real life surround them. As they come to engage with the world and acknowledge their privilege, so they also move out of the box and into the street outside. It certainly looks beautiful, but there's a sense that Priestly's not-so-subtle play didn't particularly need its on-the-nose politics painstakingly emphasised with on-the-nose scenery as well.

The use of extras on the stage falls into a similar bind of literalising the metaphors. Although the play is set in 1912 (and all the principals are dressed accordingly), the extras who turn up are dressed for wartime Britain in 1940s outfits. When the dialogue says that the future will bear witness to the mistakes of the past, the 1940s people turn up to literally bear witness. Again, it is certainly striking, but it can hardly be described as drawing out the themes of the play, since they’re abundantly clear from the script anyway.

The performances are generally strong, though occasionally lines are delivered in such unexpected ways that it seems as if the actors might be so familiar with the text that they've started experimenting to keep themselves engaged with it. Caroline Wildi particularly shines as the detestable Mrs Birling; as does Matthew Douglas, who plays the archetypical Gerald with a pleasing level of nuance.

This is a slick, polished production of a classic play that will delight secondary school children across the country. Its design choices leave nothing to interpretation, but certainly make a bold statement.

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The Blurb

From Stephen Daldry, the Oscar nominated Director of The Reader, The Hours and one of Britain's best-loved films Billy Elliot, comes the magnificent production of J.B. Priestley's classic thriller, An Inspector Calls - direct from its fourth West End season.

Hailed as the theatrical event of our generation winning more awards than any other play in history, this landmark production from the National Theatre has thrilled audiences in the West End, on Broadway and throughout the world with its epic and wildly imaginative staging, raw emotion, evocative score, lashing rain and chilling suspense.

When Inspector Goole arrives unexpectedly at the prosperous Birling family home, their peaceful dinner party is shattered by his investigations into the death of a young woman. His startling revelations shake the very foundations of their lives and challenge us all to examine our consciences.

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