A decent revival of Stephen Daldry’s production is marred by a haphazard approach to Priestley’s classic text.
When Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls first premiered at the National Theatre back in 1992, it was profoundly effective in its reinterpretation of a fairly dry – albeit eloquent – period piece. Viewed through the lens of a Britain ravaged by two world wars, Daldry brought Priestley’s subtext right to the forefront of the action and made the play fresh, bold and brave.
Now back in London’s West End for the first time since 2009, you can’t help feeling this production has had its day. Although the set, lighting and music are universally well-executed, they have lost some of their power in the intervening years. This is testament to Daldry and his ilk, who throughout the 80s and 90s were pushing boundaries in every direction to create thought-provoking theatre that felt immediate and vibrant. But it does mean that what was once heralded as groundbreaking work has almost become a period piece in its own right.
For the most part, it all feels a little overworked. The device of setting the play in three different temporal spaces (the 1910s, 1940s and the present) is painfully clever but occasionally threatens to overwhelm a story that could be left to speak for itself a little more. Priestley’s text is too frequently sidelined in favour of overdramatic bravura and anguished looks into the middle distance. Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole blends fiery indignation with smug self-righteousness, and has a habit of shouting quite a lot. If his ad-libbing is a directorial choice from Daldry, it really shouldn’t have been. Carmella Corbett as Sheila is pleasant to watch but irritating in her handling of the text, speaking every line as if she’d just had an epiphany, vaguely surprised and barely able to speak a sentence without pausing for thought. It’s a modern approach that can work well in contemporary text, but in this context something a little different is required.
All that aside, there are some wonderful elements to recommend this revival. Stephen Warbeck’s music remains as haunting and powerful as ever and Ian MacNeil’s set is excellent. The Birling residence, a dollhouse teetering precariously above bombed pavements below, adds to the claustrophobic sense of scrutiny under which the family is placed by the enigmatic Inspector Goole.
The highlight of the evening has to be Barbara Marten as Mrs Birling. Physically and vocally she commands the stage, the fall from grace of this formidable matriarch chartered with precision and outstanding detail. Clive Francis is equally strong as her socially aspirational husband, all false airs and self-made pomposity.
If you haven’t seen Stephen Daldry’s award-winning production before, then it’s definitely worth a visit. JB Priestley’s classic play is brought to life vividly. Although it feels a little dated, the messages contained in the story are as powerful as ever. With a little refinement and a calmer focus on the text, it could be fantastic.
GT gives An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre — 3/5