The Theatreguide.London Review
An Inspector Calls
National Theatre, then West End, 1992-2002; revived Novello Theatre Autumn 2009; Wyndhams Theatre Winter 2009-2010
This revival of a fifty-year-old play is a marvellous example of an imaginative director rediscovering and re-animating an old war-horse.
J. B. Priestley's spooky detective story was old-fashioned even in 1946, though it had a successful run with Ralph Richardson in the lead.
The prospect of it being an even bigger hit in the 1990s seemed remote until director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil saw a whole new play inside it, and found a way to make that subtext visible.
Set in 1912, An Inspector Calls introduces us to the rich Birling family, comfortable in their upper-class luxury and middle-class morality.
A police officer visits with some questions about a mill girl who killed herself, and gradually brings to light every member of the family's complicity in her fate: father fired her from the mill, mother refused her help from the charity she ran, son seduced and abandoned her, and so on.
Even though the play then raises questions about the Inspector's legitimacy or even reality, the family find themselves unable to return to their complacency.
In 1946, and in most textbooks since then, the play was seen as an attack on class and on the kind of alienation that denies responsibility to others.
But what Priestly also intended, and Stephen Daldry saw, was an inter-generational criticism, the world of 1946, still reeling from World War II, calling its parents to account.
So this production is staged as a kind of magical flashback, with the rubble of post-war Europe framing the world of the Birlings, and the Inspector stepping back in time to invade their fragile illusion of security.
And fragile it is, with Ian MacNeil's set turning the Birling mansion into a skewed-perspective dreamscape that is part doll house and part beach cabin, brilliantly conveying both unreality and fragility.
More than almost any play I've seen, exactly where each character stands onstage at any given moment - within the claustrophobic walls of the Birlings' hideaway from reality, stepping out onto the precarious balcony, or leaving that make-believe frame to stand in the rubble-strewn present - conveys that character's level of awareness, spiritual growth or denial.
That kind of making-the-psychological-visual is Daldry's strength, and the source of this production's emotional effects.
Originally produced by the Royal National Theatre, this revival won every award going in 1992 before transferring to the West End. It's gone through several casts, but based on its original power and the brilliance of the basic directorial and visual concept, it certainly should be seen.
A Return Visit, September 2001 . . .
An Inspector Calls' transfer after many years at the Garrick to the Playhouse Theatre is the opportunity to revisit Stephen Daldry's award-winning reinterpretation of the J. B. Priestley classic after a decade, and the result is a shocking disappointment.
Everything that once seemed an exciting rediscovery and illumination now looks old hat, everything that was once subtle is now heavy-handed, everything that was theatrically exciting is now lifeless.
I thought at first that the problem was that I knew what was coming, but my colleague, who hadn't seen the play before, had the same "What was all the fuss about?" reaction.
As sometimes happens with long runs,all the life has gone out of the production, and with it all the sense of literary and theatrical invention.
Priestley's text sounds even creakier and more old-fashioned than it ever did, Daldry's staging seems pointless, and all the play's ideas are hammered home with an obviousness that would embarrass a children's theatre production.
Even on their opening night, the new cast (I won't bother naming and shaming) have all the energy and reality of a third-string provincial company at the end of a long and weary run.
I can still half-heartedly recommend this show to students of English drama looking for the chance to see a play by this too-rarely-revived writer, and to students of English theatre looking at the roots of Stephen Daldry's career.
But the truly exciting theatrical experience this revival once offered is simply no longer on offer.
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