An Inspector Calls, The Lowry (Salford)

Well my 2020 theatre season has commenced with a splendid big bang! The English novelist and playwright J B Priestly, wrote what is probably regarded as his most well-known drama, An Inspector Calls, in 1945. Surprisingly, the play was first performed in that year in Moscow; the first performance in English took place in London the following year. It stood to reason that a cinematic version would follow and in 1954 Alastair Sim took on the role of the titular inspector. It is a contender for one of my favourite films of all time and whilst other film versions have been made, the original version remains the best in my humble opinion.

In 1992, Stephen Daldry decided that his directorial debut at The National Theatre, London, would be this old warhorse of a text. Was this to be a stroke of genius or professional suicide? Most productions of An Inspector Calls, which is set in 1912, would take place in a reconstructed, historically accurate Edwardian drawing room, complete with period furniture and heavy on the crystal decanters etc. Those productions subconsciously take you back to a past era, but the issues back then are still affecting modern audiences; probably more so now with the advent of technology and the inability to “get away from it all,” so how do you keep the feel of the original play, but make it relevant for a modern audience?

Instead of keeping with tradition, Daldry changed the setting to 1945, when the play was written. He had such a fresh, imaginative approach to the staging of An Inspector Calls, that the traditional boring drawing room drama seems to have died out. I’m thrilled that I can now say that I’ve experienced his visionary production, including Ian MacNeil’s house on stilts, first-hand. 

A young boy, a ragamuffin, darts about the curtained stage. As the curtain rises, the rain pours down on a dark night, but this street urchin and his friends are not bothered as they play on the cobbled street. To their right, voices ring out of the Birling residence, a large, fashionable house. A party is in full swing – an engagement is being announced and celebrated. The smug, wealthy citizens of the house don’t notice the squalor down below. Only they exist in this moment. Nothing can shatter their joy…that is, until an ominous figure moves out of the shadows and knocks at their door.

Photo's from programme
The Birling residence resembles a dolls house. Arthur Birling, a wealthy factory owner and local politician, can be heard behind closed doors announcing the joyous news of his daughter’s, Sheila, engagement to a business competitors’ son. As members of the family discuss the future, they leave the house through a small door and onto a balcony…they appear to tower over everybody on the streets.

The family is mid-celebration when their evening is interrupted by a gentleman calling himself Inspector Goole. The inspector brings with him extraordinary news and some difficult questions which require an answer. This mysterious figure announces that he is investigating the death of a young woman called Eva Smith and he explains that her diary names various members of the Birling family in it. Inspector Goole has a photograph of Eva which he shows to Arthur Birling. Arthur recognises the woman and confirms that she used to work for him but that he had sacked her due to her involvement with a strike at his factory, and her audacity to ask him for an increased living wage.

As the inspector’s revelations begin to shake the family, the front of the house swings open like a dolls house and the action moves from within to the front of the stage. We have entered both the lives of the Birling family and their home. Everything is on show…no aspect of life can be hidden from the audience or the inspector who seems to know every intimate detail. He is physically and metaphorically on an equal footing with the family now.
The play is a visual delight from start to finish. Set in three Acts with no interval, we are taken through all of Eva Smith’s story in intricate detail. Despite the 1945 setting and costumes, the production feels fresh and exciting.

Following Eva Smith’s dismissal from Arthur Birling’s factory, it becomes evident that Sheila Birling is not as innocent as her white engagement gown would have us believe. Eva had managed to secure a job at a local department store which was patronaged by Sheila, but Eva was young and pretty; jealousy, a bitter trait of the upper class woman who had everything handed to her on a plate, secured poor Eva’s further downfall.  Sheila confirms she too recognises Eva’s picture and she had her sacked because she smiled at Sheila “the wrong way.” During this period, Eva was calling herself Daisy Renton; at the mention of the name, Sheila’s fiancĂ© Gerald admits to knowing Daisy. He had met her at The Palace Bar, given her money out of pity and eventually they had become lovers. Gerald pointed out that he believed he had become the most important thing in Daisy’s life, so when he suddenly cut her out of his life she was devastated.

Arthur Birling, his wife and daughter are horrified at this news and Sheila returns her engagement ring to Gerald. Eva/Daisy, having been spurned by Gerald, becomes destitute and as she is pregnant turns to a women’s charity for help. The charity is headed by Arthur’s wife, Sybil. Sybil refuses to help Eva and denies her request for help with money, but admits to Goole that she blamed the young man who got Eva in the situation she was in. Eric, her son, enters the proceedings, and under the questioning of Inspector Goole admits to be the “young man” responsible for Eva’s pregnancy. He admits to stealing cash from his father to support her, but she refused to handle stolen money, instead putting herself at the mercy of the charitable foundation.

Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole is relentless and unforgiving in his manner of questioning and his Scottish brogue helps him add gravitas to his role, which is in stark contrast to the fanciful triviality of the family. The family are lulled into a false sense of calm by the Inspector’s manner which becomes darker and more unforgiving as the story of Eva Smith’s life takes shape. The questioning begins to feel more like an interrogation, and I enjoyed the light and shade of the performance…at times Goole is authoritative whilst at other times it is almost like he is in contemplation, quietly speaking his thoughts out loud. The inspector’s questions throughout the night show that each person contributed in some small way towards Eva’s downfall and ultimate suicide. Inspector Goole reminds the Birling family that all actions have consequences and that as socially responsible citizens, we should bear such matters in mind in our daily conduct; with that the inspector departs into the night.

Gerald returns to the stage to confirm he has been making enquiries of his own, telling the family that there may be no "Inspector Goole" on the police force. Arthur makes a call to the chief constable, who confirms this. Learning from a second call to the infirmary that no recent cases of suicide have been reported, the family surmise that the Inspector was a fraud and his story fictitious. Gerald and the elder Birlings celebrate, but the younger Birlings still realise the error of their ways and promise to change.

This is where the play takes its delightfully sinister twist, a telephone call, taken by Arthur, reports that a young woman has died (a suspected case of suicide), and that the police are on their way to question them. Goole's (or should that be ghouls?!) true identity is left unexplained, but it is clear that the family's confessions over the course of the evening have all been true, and that public disgrace will soon befall them.

The play is probably well known to many, indeed, is often on the curriculum of English schools, as it shows and allows discussion about the hypocrisy of Victorian/Edwardian society, but can a play written in 1945 still have a place on the modern theatre stage, or is it just a piece of historical drama? The answer, quite simply, is yes. It is a play which examines people’s consciences. Do we think before we say or do something that could have a dramatic impact on someone else’s life, or do we disregard the potential consequences? Who really knows what moves someone to commiting an act so desparate, the act of taking ones life; maybe it is one thing...maybe it is a mutitude of events which have snowballed into making life too unbearable to continue.

Photo's from Programme
What Daldry has achieved from moving the action from the drawing room to outside of the home, is to put the characters on show to the world…they have lost the safety of the sanctity of the house and their privacy. Their misdemeanours are there for all to see and whilst you can see they are complicit in Eva’s downfall; you also feel some sympathy towards them as the inspector never allows them a moments reprieve.

The manner in which J B Priestley wrote the play allows for self-reflection and to see society for what it is. It shows the social climbing Birling’s for who they are and the hypocrisy of the supposed charitable Mrs Birling (Christine Kavanagh) who you can’t help but despise. The saviours of the piece are the younger generation, especially Sheila (Chloe Orrock) who transforms from a spoilt and seemingly vacuous individual, to someone who can see the error of her ways. Maybe there is hope for the future.

Whilst Priestly campaigned for a more equal society, his play does border on vilifying the upper classes, whilst glorifying the lower classes. He saw the greed and exploitation that those with boundless wealth held over those who resented the lack of opportunities afforded to them. He put the root cause of World War I down to capitalism and the disregard of the working people which he outlines in An Inspector Calls and that World War II was the effect of the lessons not being learned from the first war.

As with all things you have to be objective to see the good and bad of both echelons of society and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the production, in particularly the set, lighting and score, there were things that did grate with me. I found the opening gambit with the street urchins a little too longwinded, and I found that Arthur, Eric and Gerald all became a little too melodramatic and hysterical especially towards the end of the production. Nevertheless, it was a production I thoroughly enjoyed, and considering that there is no interval, there was no point at which I started to fidget in anticipation of a loo break!

Running time 1 hour 50 minutes (no interval)

Tour continues 2020:
21 – 25 Jan 2020
Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes Theatre
0844 871 7652
29 Jan – 1 Feb 2020
Bradford Theatres
01274 432000
4 – 8 Feb 2020
Liverpool Playhouse Theatre
0844 871 3017
11 – 15 Feb 2020
Theatre Royal Nottingham
0115 989 5555
25 – 29 Feb 2020
Theatre Royal
0844 8717650
3 – 7 March 2020
Theatre Royal
01752 267 222
10 – 14 March 2020
Cardiff New Theatre
029 2087 8889
17 – 21 March 2020
Cambridge Arts Theatre
01223 503333
24 – 28 March 2020
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7647
31 March – 4 April 2020
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
01483 44 00 00
14 – 18 April 2020
0114 249 6000
21 – 25 April 2020
Sunderland Empire
0844 871 3022
28 April – 2 May 2020
Belgrade Theatre
024 7655 3055
5 – 9 May 2020
Gaiety Theatre
0818 719 388
12 – 16 May 2020
The Orchard Theatre
01322 220000
19 – 23 May 2020
0116 242 3595

For further details check the website