That inspector keeps on calling in the West End, and he’s a very welcome visitor – though the smug Birling family, whose celebration of their daughter’s engagement is disrupted by his arrival, may beg to differ.
It’s 24 years since, while between jobs at the Gate and the Royal Court, director Stephen Daldry took a theatrical sledgehammer to JB Priestley’s moral thriller with considerable help from designer Ian McNeill, who substituted the Birling family dining room for a dinky and fragile Edwardian doll’s house perched precariously in a desolate post-blitz landscape.
Priestley’s play, in which a police inspector knocks at the door and each of the Birlings are implicated in the death of a young woman, is, for all its clunky, lumpy moments, sufficiently well-made to survive this creative assault. Daldry and McNeill transform it into a vivid and expressionistic piece of meta-theatre which revels in the frolicsome games with time and metaphysics that Priestley enjoyed playing in his work. It keeps reminding us that we are watching a piece of theatre. At the beginning, a small blitz urchin pushes his way through the red velvet curtains as if trying to force his way into the play itself.
The play is set in 1912, just as the first world war, which would put an end to a whole comfortable middle-class way of life, is looming. But it was written in 1945, at the end of a second world war that seemed likely to usher in another new era of social and cultural change. It offers a passionate plea for a more just and compassionate society. Daldry hauntingly looks both back and forward, filling the stage with the ghosts of the ordinary men and women who swept a Labour government to victory in 1945. They gaze out at us accusingly, as if judging whether we have fulfilled the promise of that euphoric moment that held so much hope for the future.
Of course, we have failed miserably. Back in 1992, when the production debuted at the National Theatre, it quite clearly referenced Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “there is no such thing as society”. But it looks no less relevant now, as a Tory government plays to the interests of capital, as symbolised by the self-made factory owner Arthur Birling (Clive Francis), and squeezes those who can least afford it.
Liam Brennan brings just the right low-key authority to the mysterious Inspector Goole, who may or may not really exist. Carmella Corbett makes us believe that the self-satisfied young Shelia really has been shaken out of her complacency by her encounter, not just with the inspector but with the spectre of the future. And Barbara Marten is magnificent as Sybil, initially behaving like an imperious Elizabeth I deigning to give the inspector an audience, but eventually reduced to shivering amid the rubble.
As good as they are, the actors play second fiddle in a production that, from Stephen Warbeck’s doomy music to Rick Fisher’s eerie lighting, magically reinvents a middlebrow drama and transforms it into thrilling and pertinent theatre.
•At Playhouse, London, until 4 February. Box office: 0844-871 7615