THERE is nothing subtle about J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with its idealistic lesson that we are all interdependent and responsible for one another. The play is very straightforward with simplistic characters who have all behaved badly and who are shown a mirror to their moral actions by the Inspector. (Swap the photos of the dead woman for a mirror).
Ever since the play was first produced in 1945 in Moscow it has been popular being a whodunnit, morality tale and costume drama all rolled into one. Being on the English Literature curriculum also helps keep touring productions on the road with the guarantee of audiences.
Being so popular for both stage and screen it is was apparently a surprise when trendy young director Stephen Daldry chose it for his debut at the National Theatre in 1992. Widely acclaimed at the time and seemingly continuously on tour, the production plays around with the concept of what is performance, when are the players acting, the stage on a stage, where is the fourth wall (including fiddling around with the curtain itself), is the Inspector directing the drama or part of it. Yes, all quite valid (if a little heavy-handed) but not really necessary for a play that doesn’t need such intellectual jiggerypokery. The words are sufficient and I rather hankered for just the words which I assume we are supposed to believe were coming from the radio switched on after the blitz had ended
I found all of this distracting from the strength of what is a psychological investigation into this family as mediums of values, morality, class and, of course, community. Just because the play, its message, are straightforward doesn’t mean the staging needs to be crammed full of symbolism.
Such is the clarity (and simplicity) of the character writing and the plot that there is no need to tinker. The medium for this preachy play is the prosperous and rather preposterous industrialist family, the Birlings, living in a northern town in the run up to the First World War. They are celebrating the engagement of their daughter to the son of a rival firm which will help push down costs and maximise profits. It will also bring old and new money together.
However, clearly all is not well in this family and the appearance of an unconventional police inspector to investigate the painful suicide of a young woman is the blade to lance the boil that is already festering.
The Inspector individually shows each of the protagonists a photo when recounting each sorry step in the decline of the young woman as she is delivered blow after blow, from losing her job in the father’s factory to finally being turned away from the mother’s charitable committee.
At first the clever idea of the drama taking place in a miniaturised house rising like a pustule on splits out of the earth and which opens up like a dolls’ house onto the grimy external world works well. Ian McNeill’s designs that contrast between the pretty house and the open sewer, the bourgeois finery and the gritty industrial population and broken windows of the phone box, are obvious but no problem However, the rather clunky collapse of the house when the Birling’s world falls apart if too blatant as is the dah dah daa music as the plot develops.
I would call this a bit of a shouty production whether that is Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole, Geoff Leesley’s Arthur Birling , Matthew Douglas as the fiancé Gerald Croft and even the feeble younger son, Eric, played by Hamish Riddle.
Caroline Wildi didn’t really rise above a one-dimensional portrayal of the matriarch Sybil despite rather unnecessarily made to sit next to her husband in the sewer as he salvages the family silver. Most impressive was Katherine Jack as the perceptive daughter Sheila although she is given more to play with by Priestley unlike the other flat characters.
New Theatre, Cardiff. Until April 16