Thank god then for Stephen Daldry’s production, which hammers at your preconceptions like the questioning of a mysterious, avenging police inspector. Just a warning: if you don’t enjoy slightly heavyhanded symbolism, this may not be the show (or the review) for you. Ian MacNeil’s breathtaking staging is packed with the stuff.
The Birlings’ mansion squats in the centre of the stage like a surreal dolls’-house, its tiny door forcing the revellers to contort themselves as they clamber out into a cobbled wasteland, simultaneously suggesting urban decay and aerial bombing. This production refuses to be nailed to time or place, mixing 1900’s decadence with wartime devastation. As the Birling family’s world collapses under the guilt the Inspector forces from each of them, so their house literally quakes, shattering crockery and upturning furniture. Crowds of silent, accusatory figures appear as if from nowhere, like the vengeful shades of those forgotten by society.
Spectacular is the word, but it’s not just spectacle. This staging gives Priestley’s dreadfully earnest script a surreal quality, by turns fairy-tale and nightmarish. The inspector becomes an almost supernatural figure, stripping away petty deceits and evasions to force confessions of the thoughtless cruelties we inflict on other people. The mood remains tense and thrilling- partly due to some brilliant performance from the cast.
Karen Archer’s Sybil and Geoff Leesley’s Arthur are a pair of pitch-perfect bourgeois bastards. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to slap a pair of characters quite so much, which is in fact a compliment. I think. The younger generation, too, are nicely pitched, particularly Kelly Hotten’s Sheila, who manages the transition from thoughtless girl to conscience-struck woman splendidly.
Tom Mannion’s Inspector Goole is a rock of solidity in a collapsing family (and stage)- his only concession to the increasing tension being to remove his jacket. Oh, and shout. He shouts a lot, so much that I thought the Birlings, dastardly as they were, might have had a point when they accused him of overstepping his authority.
In fact, this whole show is at high volume, from staging to mood. It’s aggressively spectacular, from the mood-setting rainstorm that accompanies the inspector’s arrival to the devastating finale. This production of An Inspector Calls is a wake-up call, making a familiar play into a relevant, gripping drama once more.