Genuinely – and I have never been able to write this before – it was standing room only. People paid to crouch in the aisles. But was it worth it? After all, this GCSE set text first hit the stage in 1945. It’s set in 1912! It must be one of those fusty old things that gets dusted off as part of the great theatrical canon – right? (Obviously – no).
Priestley, you see, wrote a script that’s so clever that it’s timeless. It blows the likes of Agatha Christie off the pitch and leaves you scratching your head, as you look again and again at the mirrors within mirrors he left lying around so casually. Here’s a little of what I mean.
It’s 1912 and the wealthy, well-connected Birlings are in self-congratulatory mode, as Sheila (Chloe Orrock) gets engaged to socially superior Gerald Croft (Simon Cotton). Her father (Jeffrey Harmer) quietly boasts he’s got a knighthood in the offing, hoping to impress the future in-laws.
Audiences in 1945 would have raised an eyebrow at Mr Birling’s haughty prattling about a bright future ahead, knowing with the benefit of hindsight that not only was the Great War about to fall on this family, but that 21 years after that war ended, another – with bigger firepower – would come racing hungry upon its heels.
There’s a knock at the door, and Inspector Goole (the outstanding, so-watchable Liam Brennan) arrives. He brings news of a young woman’s death and a lot of questions for everyone. From hereon in, the purified air is slowly, and decisively, released from the Birlings’ special bubble of privilege and certainty.
Director Stephen Daldry’s production is one I think Priestley would applaud. He gives us the extra envelope of the 1940s’ point of view by setting the 1912 Birling house within a blitzed-London bomb crater. And on top of that, dramatic slices of Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Like a silent seer, servant Edna (Frances Campbell) stays always on stage, a bridge between worlds, often knitting like an Old Norse Norn (the wise women of Icelandic myth who knit out every human’s past, present and future). She is a joy to behold.
And talking of myth, let’s shine a light on Ian MacNeil’s set. Almost like the chicken-legged house of Baba Yaga, the Birling’s home is angular, pinched, slightly wonky, and awkwardly elevated. It opens up like a doll’s house and even collapses to its knees. Comfort based on self-deception, Daldry shows us – as Priestley tells us – is a vulnerable, and dangerous, edifice.
This isn’t a new production. It started at the National Theatre back in 1992, was revived and refreshed in 2018 and – post-pandemic – now continues its journey around the UK. For this we should be grateful.
Because in 2023, Priestley’s warnings – against complacency, against the dehumanisation of the poor, against the perils of ‘la-la-la-we’re not listening’ when we feel discomfort – are as chillingly important to the future of our grandchildren today, as they ought to have been to the morally hollow Birlings of 1912.
And if you don’t know what their actions did to their grandchildren, get a ticket. Failing that, read the play.
I’ll leave you with the verdict of the next generation (year 7): “That was incredible; there is no way that could’ve been improved at all. Amazing.”
An Inspector Calls is at Theatre Royal Bath from May 16-20 at 7.30pm, with additional 2.30pm matinee shows on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Tickets are available at www.theatreroyal.org.uk.
All photos: Mark Douet
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