Clare Sinclair reviews the 20th anniversary tour of the hit West End revival.
A play set exactly 100 years ago wouldn’t normally be seen to be relevant to a 2012 audience; yet although steeped in history, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls remains relevant on its tour of the UK this year, brought by Oscar Nominated director Stephen Daldry with the National Theatre.
The story of the Birling’s has grown up with many a class of English or Drama students: the prosperous family who have a mirror held up to their consciences by the mysterious Inspector Goole (Tom Mannion). Arthur and Sybil Birling (Geoff Leesley and Karen Archer) are the stoic heads of the household, and are generations apart from their children Sheila and Eric (Kelly Hotten and Henry Gilbert) in both age, and philosophy, while Sheila’s new fiancé Gerald Croft (John Sackville) is as embroiled as the rest of them in the fate of the unseen, but much spoken of, Eva Smith.
Where the text is traditional – and some believe aged – Daldry worked hard to reinvent this for a modern audience when the run of this production started 20 years ago in 1992. Ian MacNeil’s design has taken the traditional Edwardian drawing room and given things a distinctly Burton-esque feel. An out of proportion house, built on stilts which both collapses in the ground, and rises from it gives things a modern twist. It comes as little surprise that Daldry is an accomplished film director – the performance has a cinematic feel – akin at times to The Exorcist with misty evenings, a lone gentleman and an imposing light post – while Risk Fisher’s lighting shines an eerie glow on proceedings.
It is well known that Priestly used An Inspector Calls as a vehicle for his political beliefs, and in a time where the gap between rich and poor is as big as ever, this performance still holds relevance. What is most striking about this piece is how we become jury, as the inspector holds court over the family. And even once he has gone, although the younger members of the Birling family are left with a lasting impression of their morality and their misuse of power, the elders of the household revert to form. Priestly was – and still is, in this reincarnation – warning us that whether we are the Birlings or the Smiths of this world, change in attitudes and preconceptions must happen.
An Inspector Calls is at the Royal in Glasgow until February 25th before continuing its UK tour.