An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Clare Howdon
J B Priestley’s classic thriller was given a much needed re-vamp by Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry in 1992 and this award winning production has been revived for a nationwide tour. The play, first premiered in 1945, tells the story of complacently affluent industrialist Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, son Eric, daughter Sheila and her fiancée Gerald Croft who one evening are forced by the enigmatic Inspector Goole to confront their culpability in the sacking, pregnancy and eventual suicide of the young working –class girl Eva Smith.
Despite the fact that the particular production I witnessed had one of the noisiest audiences I had ever experienced at a theatre (this was mainly due to the audience being made up of school children obviously studying this for their imminent GCSE examinations), this annoyance didn’t mar the merits of this stirring production.
Luckily Daldry has taken on board JB Priestley’s own assertion that ‘only a fool would think that I was a realist dramatist’ and directs with an expressionist and overly-theatrical style which unearths a myriad of textual depth and meaning. His slick and stylish direction is complemented perfectly by a striking set design by Ian McNeill. The centre point; a mansion-like building which houses the wealthy Birling family, hovers imperiously on stilts, high above and unaware of the under privileged classes scuttling around beneath them. This serves as a constant reminded of J B Priestley’s moralistic critique of the English class system. The eventual destruction of the centre piece house is a particular theatrical highlight and once again pays homage to JB Priestley’s strong symbolic elements throughout his writing (this time in the form of the break-up of the family unit.)
Throw into this director/designer mix a thoroughly rousing and eerie soundtrack by Stephen Warbuck and the result is a tangibly nightmarish atmospheric production, pitched somewhere between Film Noir (with the numerous sombre soliloquies) and a 1920’s horror movie. This outlandish blending of theatre and film genres works remarkably well and results in a gripping and exciting evening of theatre.
In terms of performance, the cast are flawless and Louis Hiyler, Sandra Duncan and David Roper in particular offer a master class in character acting. Hiyer’s unusual yet mesmerising tones give Inspector Goole his much needed controlling and mysterious persona as well as contributing to the supernatural and non-realistic production undertones. Sandra Duncan is delightful as Sybil Birling and delivers her lines with comic perfection.
After watching this production, it is clear to see why it won the numerous awards that it did when it first hit the theatre scene in 1992. The combination of masterful direction, an innovative set, lighting and sound design and an impeccable cast has transferred J B Priestley’s timeless classic from a stale rep favourite to a stylish piece of modern theatre.
An Inspector Calls runs at the Lowry until Sat 9th May