Wednesday 22 March 2023

An Inspector Calls

 Curve, Leicester

21st March, 2023

We don't live alone

Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945), first staged at the National Theatre in 1992, is one of the most successful revivals of a play in British theatre history. Initially only programmed for 33 performances in the Lyttelton, the National briefly considered pulling it from the schedule to save money and instead extend the hugely popular The Madness of George III. It was only kept in the schedule because a small regional tour was booked for the Autumn. Thirty years on, following a return to the National, countless UK and international tours, and five lengthy West End runs between 1993 and 2016, An Inspector Calls is still a set text and a global success. Having reportedly called it a ‘terrible play’ when first approached to direct it, Daldry went on to free it from its baggage of being perceived as a tired war horse of regional rep. Rather than tease out, his production pulls out the political and social prescience of Priestley’s play. This was my first time seeing it (I studied Blood Brothers for GCSE English), but it still has the power to thrill and stun an audience which included several appreciative school groups at Leicester’s Curve last night.

On a rainy night in a town in the Midlands, Inspector Goole interrupts a celebratory engagement dinner at the Birling household. He brings news of the suicide of a young woman he’s investigating (we’re told Eva Smith is one of the names she used). When the family all initially deny any connection to or knowledge of the girl, he in turn interrogates each family member and uncovers the part they played in her undoing. As Goole shows each member a photograph of Smith, we hear that former employer Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer) denied her a wage rise and fired her for leading strike action. We also hear how his wife Sybil Birling (Christine Kavanagh) refused the girl help when she came to her charity committee. One by one, we hear how each is in some way culpable. There are several plot twists along the way, right to the moment the curtain falls. Priestley’s point, ultimately, is we don’t just exist in our insular lives; we are part of a society and have a responsibility to each other.

Daldry’s and Ian MacNeil’s (set designer) visions perfectly align. MacNeil confines the Birling’s drawing room to a large Edwardian doll’s house looming over the middle of the stage. Sitting on stilts with a forced perspective, the opening lines of dialogue are enclosed in the house out of view of the audience. Downstage is made up of more uncertain terrain, a phone box and street lamp. Soon after Inspector Goole arrives (in an image reminiscent of The Exorcist), the house springs open, forcing the Birlings to confront the world outside of their middle-class trappings and their complicity in Smith’s death. In a coup-de-théâtre, as Goole turns the Birling’s world upside down, their house also collapses: dinnerware crashes to the stage, doors swing open, fire comes out of the chimney. Despite the many questions we’re left with at the end, we see the Inspector’s visit has literally and perhaps irrevocably shaken their world.

It’s a play with a strong social commentary dressed up as a thriller, and both elements are ripped open by Daldry and played to full effect. Inside the house, it’s 1912; outside it’s 1945. Most of Inspector Goole’s interrogations are played downstage addressing the audience. His interaction with a small child who watches much of the action perhaps provides a link between the two time settings and acts as a reminder of the next generation who will hopefully take on his call for better social responsibility. The children in the play (and indeed the audience) perhaps also represent ‘the famous younger generation who know it all’, as Mr Birling scoffs towards the end of the play. But any of the play’s didacticism is dialled back by Liam Brennan’s engaging, well-balanced performance and MacNeil’s film noir design. Rick Fisher’s lighting casts long shadows and dry ice is used effectively to keep the tension high. A timely play and a timeless production, An Inspector Calls is surely a masterpiece of twentieth century theatre.

An Inspector Calls plays at Curve, Leicester until 25th March as part of a UK tour. For further details please visit

Liam Brennan in An Inspector Calls. Credit: Mark Douet

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