J.B. Priestley’s whodunit about social responsibility, written in 1945 but set in the death throes of the Edwardian golden age, has had some of its hard edges taken off over the years. In 1954, a film version starring Alastair Sim cast the ghoulish inspector as a benignly remote presence at the Birling family table, uncovering the secrets of ‘hard-headed businessman’ Arthur, his cold-hearted aristocratic wife Sybil and their spoilt brat grown-up children Sheila and Eric, as well as Sheila’s new fiancé Gerald Croft. In the film, we also meet Eva Smith – the working-class girl whose suicide is the result of a series of encounters with the Birlings – but the whole point of the play is that we never meet Eva face-to-face, only through what we are told; the mystery thrives on our never-quite-knowing. Just as we are unsure as to the identity of the inspector – champion of the voiceless poor – we share some of the doubts of the characters as to the veracity his tale. All of the family have mistreated a girl. But is it the same girl? And does that matter?
These questions will be familiar to generations of school pupils who have studied An Inspector Calls – a GCSE examination staple over the last few decades – along with other left-wing favourites and ‘issues-based’ works like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The play is part of a canon within a canon, and in some ways has had the life beaten out of it by endless analysis in classrooms all over Wales and England.
Enter Stephen Daldry, the Billy Elliot director about to get a new shorthand epithet due to his work on the London Olympics’ opening ceremony. Daldry dreamed up a radical new production that – quite literally – blew up this dysfunctional family drama. Although tonight’s cast have never even met the original director, they revealed afterward that there was little scope for further changes to the 1992 piece on this tour, a spin-off from its fifth West End run. Taking the play back to its roots in the aftermath of the Blitz – an air raid siren greets the rise of curtain – Daldry’s production gives new resonances to a piece that had begun to tire, lending new energy to its eternally relevant message of the moral responsibility we have to anybody who crosses our path in life, regardless of social background.
The most striking aspect of the production is Ian McNeil’s design: the Birlings begin ensconced inside a suburban villa that swings open to reveal a sloping naturalistic interior on the arrival of the inspector. We see the family from the outside, the brightly-lit dining room only glimpsed through windows set against the darkness of the street like an Edward Hopper painting or Massive Attack video; the symbolism is obvious – while the rich dine in on self-congratulatory laughter, the working class are left out in the cold. We, the audience, are outside too – and this is where our sympathies remain. Mr Birling’s pompous and complacent bluster is underscored by discordant noises: mournful violin, unexplained bangs and crashes, and the chugging of a train, signifier of the mechanised era. The miniature house serves only to exaggerate Priestley’s grotesque caricatures of the upper-middle class, their laughter ringing increasingly hollow as the cosseted world they have created for themselves explodes – quite literally – around them. When, near the end of the play, the house collapses, it is a genuinely shocking and spectacular show of pyrotechnics and smoke, and an echo of the inspector’s final words. ‘If men will not learn [that we are members of one society, responsible for each other], then… they will learn in fire and blood and anguish.’
Despite the intended friction between the play’s 1912 setting and 1945 composition, there is also a contemporary resonance in the fact of Eva Smith’s dismissal for wanting a rise to 25 shillings a week from 22s 6d. Eric, the son who grows from a boy to a man over the play’s course, increasingly in conflict with his father, comments: ‘It isn’t a free country if you can’t go and work somewhere else.’ This line, like much else in the play, seems particularly relevant in 2012, vindicating exam board decisions to keep it on the curriculum.
Edna, the parlour maid who in the original script does little more than open the door for the inspector, is here a pointed omnipresence. Together with a chorus dressed in outfits from the play’s original performance date of 1945, she represents those who voted in Attlee’s post-war Labour administration whose social reforms marked the dawning of a new type of country. And Eva, the dead girl who does not even appear, becomes even more potent in a delivery of the Daldry production which takes a melodramatic interpretation to the very edge of unhinged.
Occasionally the shouting and screaming and the breakneck pace with which the play is delivered – the director having dispensed with an interval – have the desired impact, but too often distract from the purpose of the play. Each character is on a different trajectory – Sheila and Eric, the younger generation, offer hope for the future by learning from their mistakes – but the accelerated arc on which they travel often makes their gestures ring hollow. Much of Act One’s character development is cut to facilitate an earlier entrance for the inspector. Karen Archer’s Mrs Birling is delightfully over-the-top, her grandness making her impossible to empathise with; Sheila (Kelly Hotten) is the character with whom modern audiences most identify. Her refusal of her fiancé’s jacket to keep her warm – after discovering his affair with the dead girl – is almost applauded by the young audience, and she steals the scene in which the engagement ring that has been on her finger for less than an hour is cast dramatically aside, skimming across the cobblestones in a gesture that is pure twentyfirst century.
At the play’s end, the complacent older generation attempt to clear up the mess their lives have been left in, ‘ready to go on in the same old way’. But the inspector’s visit has the younger characters beginning to readjust not only family relationships but social structures: ‘We are members of one society,’ says Tom Mannion’s inspector in his set-piece speech. Daldry’s metaphor of the collapsing house and Priestley’s original emphasis on shifts in time make for powerful morality play as well as a thought-provoking whodunit, but while the interpretation of the production delivered here never quite manages to drive home the central message, one hopes that the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds who dominate the audience can see the striking parallels between the world of the Birlings and the one created by their own parents and grandparents. And not just for the exam.