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The Crack Magazine

3. AN INSPECTOR CALLS. Liam Brennan 'Inspector Goole'. Photo Tristram Kenton.jpg

An Inspector Calls at Theatre Royal

First performed just after World War II, J.B. Priestley’s excoriating account of an uncaring Capitalist society where profit rules and philanthropy is a hypocritical mask has had a chequered history. Though set in 1910, its contemporary appeal to an exhausted society hoping to build itself up on fairer principles seems obvious, but even in the 1940s some critics found its single-set format stuffy and undramatic. Essentially a drawing-room drama, its small scale tempted too many dull productions as its political bite wore away. In 1992 Stephen Daldry directed a radically re-thought version, referencing the post-war period as well as the 1910 plot and using an elaborate, explosive (literally, at one point) design to engage the attention of a new audience. He can be credited for reclaiming the power of the play, but it’s this same production that’s touring and, frankly, it is starting to show its age. Plot is simple – family of wealthy industrialist is celebrating an engagement when a police inspector calls to question each of them about the suicide of a working-class girl. While this production avoids the static heaviness this dialogue-driven format can create, its dolls’ house set contrasted with a rainy street populated by unscripted extras now feels rather desperate and gimmicky in its striving for effect. The performances here don’t help, lacking the clear diction and projection needed for Priestley’s telling dialogue, which as the play opens is taken so fast as to be inaudible. Liam Brennan as the stern but sympathetic Inspector and Christine Kavanagh as the steely Mrs Birling gave the best, most nuanced performances and a word of praise must go to Frances Campbell as the put-upon maid Edna - little to say but a great example of stage presence. Good to see the play again, if only for the sad consideration of how much its message still needs to be listened to, but it’s time for a re-think that doesn’t remind us how far theatrical tastes can change in thirty years.

Gail-Nina Anderson