An Inspector Calls | Theatre review

Novello, London

When Stephen Daldry's An Inspector Calls appeared at the National Theatre, it was lauded for its three-way timeframe. This expressionist refit was set in 1912 (when its action takes place), 1944 (when JB Priestley wrote it) and 1992 (when it was performed). So how many timeframes does it have now? The production itself has passed into history, with 1992 feeling as strange to us as the earlier eras Daldry sought to evoke.

Well, its critique of I'm-all-right-Jack individualism is as relevant as it was shortly after Thatcher, even if Daldry's production threatens to let the present day off the hook. The action, in which an industrialist and his family confront their complicity in the suicide of a destitute local woman, is staged within a doll's house on stilts, perched above some blackened, Blitz-blasted street. But, by playing it before a crowd of 1940s witnesses, Daldry implies that these Edwardian toffs will soon get their comeuppance. "The time will come," warns Inspector Goole, "when they will be taught [their lesson] in fire and blood and anguish." But, two world wars notwithstanding, the world's Mr Birlings haven't learned that lesson yet.

Maybe this revival will help. It's still brilliantly accusatory, bracing and strange. With Ian MacNeil's warped set and Stephen Warbeck's Hitchcockian score, Daldry conceals the play's creakier contrivances in glowering melodrama. It's as if justice itself is ghoulishly abroad – though Nicholas Woodeson's Inspector gives it very human dimensions. Marianne Oldham's Sheila speaks the most potent lines when she expresses relief, at last, to meet an inspector prepared to bring the elite to account. The rich and powerful, argues Priestley, must be saved from themselves. His era's Labour government knew that. Does ours?


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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