REVIEW: An Inspector Calls, Playhouse Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

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The Cast Of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Mark Douet

An Inspector Calls
Playhouse Theatre
10 November 2016
Five stars
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We open on the Birlings, a comfortably middle-class family with serious social aspirations. One night, whilst celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila to the aristocratic Gerald Croft there’s an unexpected arrival. “Please sir,” Edna, the family’s servant says “An inspector’s called.”  In walks Inspector Goole, and so begins a night of revelations. A young woman, Eva Smith, has committed suicide, leaving behind a diary that through a series of circumstances and social disadvantages incriminates the entire family.

J. B. Priestley’s drama has long been a staple of GCSE reading lists and AmDram repertoire. This National Theatre production, now at the Playhouse Theatre and dubbed as ‘landmark’ in the promotional materials, turns the play on its head, by keeping its 1912 setting strictly limited to the world of the Birlings – a step outside the house takes us to a cobbled, Blitz-shattered street. The entire piece is situated in a theatre that may have been performing some manner of Edwardian drawing room play before succumbing to bomb damage. Now it’s the playground of the neighbourhood children, who creep in during an air raid to explore, before being drawn into the drama.

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Hamish Riddle, Camela Corbett and Clive Francis in An Inspector Calls. Photo: Mark Douet

The Birling family home is perched above the ruins of the street, a relic of the long-lost Edwardian age that has since been destroyed by two world wars. This night of domestic drama may have indeed happened in this house, on this street, but it’s long been blown away and forgotten.

Ian MacNeil’s set is indisputably stunning, with the curtain rising to pouring rain contrasting with the glowing warmth of the Birling residence. Initially the house is closed off to us, and through the windows, the audience catches glimpses of the family around the dining table. There are snatches of conversation, gales of laughter, but we are excluded. The world inside the house is an affluent world, that the audience, the 1940’s urchins that scamper around the theatre and indeed, Eva Smith are not permitted to be a part of. The house soon swings open like a doll’s house to reveal the inner workings of the family. It’s clear we are not welcome, and the characters only (literally) descend from their ivory tower when Goole compels them to. The entire set is full of surprises and as much a star of the show as any of the cast.

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Barbara Marten in An Inspector Calls. Photo: Mark Douet

There are excellent performances all round, and director Stephen Daldrey has reinvented these characters to huge success. Clive Frances as Birling patriarch Arthur is all bluff and bluster, clinging on to a time where he is king of his castle, where the rich are rich and the poor are poor and the ‘cranks’ (as he denounces them) are kept a safe distance away overseas. Barbara Marten is magnificent as wife Sybil, unwittingly orchestrating her own downfall with larger than life grandiose. It’s impossible to look away as her comeuppance finally, crushingly, arrives.

Carmela Corbett gives a stand out performance as Sheila, who along with Sheila’s brother Eric (Hamish Biddle) and fiancé Gerald (Matthew Douglas) start the night as a repulsive trio, cackling morbidly over the news of the suicide. Her gradual realisation that her father’s world is not the world of the future is artfully and unpretentiously done.

Book tickets for An Inspector Calls
The cast of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Mark Douet

Finally, Liam Brennan presents an impressive and unforgettable Inspector Goole. Far from the grim, stoic figure that many interpretations go for, in Brennan’s hands Goole’s dialogue ebbs and flows. He ums and ahs and muses at one point ‘what’s the word…’ this is a far more human Goole than we are usually presented with. His humanity also shows in his increasing frustration with the Birlings.

But there is a still a sense of the puppet master about him. Here Goole is not just an omniscient police inspector – he’s director, stage manager, choreographer. His first entrance involves him shuffling apologetically along the front row. After Eric slams out of the house in the middle of the evening, Goole dashes into the wings to try and find him, like an errant performer. When events turn violent he calls a halt to proceedings with a quick signal to his invisible stage crew and addresses the audience directly. This ruined theatre is Goole’s domain, and all the men and women are merely players.

The entire production is a fascinating interpretation, and completely lives up to its ‘landmark’ hype. In these times of political upheaval, Priestley’s reminder that “we are responsible for each other” is not only timely, but timeless. After a turbulent 2016, An Inspector Calls is a must see.


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