Review: An Inspector Calls, Theatre Royal Brighton

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

The camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are old ones, but designations that persist nonetheless, a pertinent observation for this latest airing of a play first written over sixty years ago. As society is once more sharply divided between the haves and have nots, Stephen Daldry’s unblinkingly stark reinterpretation of JB Priestley’s classic play demonstrates yet again its enduring relevance.

Priestley’s tale of how Inspector Goole forces the wealthy and selfish Birling family to accept their blame in the suicide of a neglected working-class girl has been shifted to a surreal temporal space in which the Birlings’ home sits suspended above a Second World War-era cobbled road. As children play and scavenge on the ravaged street, the less fortunate are a constant accusatory audience for the Birlings’ unravelling secrets. Each of these blithely inconsiderate individuals has a part to play in the dead girl’s life, roles that are revealed one by one.

Strangeness is the hallmark of Daldry’s vision in a production that thrills with a sense of climbing unease. This instability is typified by the Birlings’ fragile, doll-house residence, a home perched on stilts that are as precarious as the deceitful foundations on which the family’s comfort and complacence is built. Stephen Warbeck’s hauntingly discordant strains of atmospheric music, meanwhile, evoke the noir thriller and tug persuasively on the emotions, heralding the snowballing revelations with style if not with subtlety.

There is at times a clanging echo to the unfolding confessions and their repercussions, a heavy reverberation that does away with soft nuances. Both Priestley’s text and Daldry’s interpretation know their point and make it strongly; personal facades and middle-class delusions are shattered as comprehensively as Ian MacNeil’s striking set is dramatically dismantled.

Daldry’s heavy-handedness, however, feels at one with Priestley’s original intentions. By intersecting the Edwardian action with a Blitz-stricken world, Daldry incorporates both Inspector Goole’s predicted future of ‘fire and blood and anguish’ and the time at which Priestley was writing, while his forceful and potent methods of making the audience complicit pursue the playwright’s socialist message. Delivered here by a sturdy and convincing cast, particularly Tom Mannion as an Inspector who seethes with barely suppressed social injustice, the power of Daldry’s production shows few signs of wear.

Without even taking into consideration the classic status of Priestley’s text, Daldry’s innovative, insightful and now somewhat definitive staging is well on its own way to becoming something of a classic. This current tour marks the production’s 25th outing, while the concept itself will be twenty years old next year. It is a theatrical triumph yet something of a damning social indictment that this inspector’s discoveries remain so immovably relevant and resonant.

Currently on tour around the UK until May 2012.

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