An Inspector Calls (National Theatre) – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Richard Mansfield, January 2020
This is the second time in a decade that the touring National Theatre has brought Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed revival of this play back to The Alhambra in Bradford, the home city of the playwright himself, J.B. Priestley. The effort was rewarded by a much deserved full house and a very appreciative audience.
Set in the industrial town of ‘Brumley’, in northern England, around 1912, the play was written towards the end of the Second World War and actually first performed in Moscow in 1945, prior to its appearance in London the following year.
Priestley’s drama takes as its focus a ‘well to do family’, the Birlings, and the social divisions arising from their privileged, wealthy industrialist circumstances. Sharing the limelight are their mores, their attitudes and conduct towards the impoverished folk who provide their workforce and so contribute to their wealth.
“Sense of culpability rises and falls like a rollercoaster”
Such is the success of this family that its head, Arthur Birling, anticipates his name appearing soon in the honours list as confirmation of his status and respectability. Prejudice, the assumption of advantage and superiority abound, along with a vast dose of hypocrisy. On the evening the play is set, the family is celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila Birling, to Gerald Croft, the progeny of another industrialist family, and, from the awaited marriage, it is expected a merger of two industrial companies and families will ensue. However, their smug complacency and self-indulgence, notwithstanding the life of the inevitably dissolute son Eric Birling, are rudely interrupted by the unannounced visit of one Police Inspector Goole.
Arriving in the locality, mysteriously carrying a suitcase and without so much as producing a warrant card or ID, Goole, greatly resented for his apparently inappropriate intrusion, is reluctantly admitted to the house. Goole, forthright and tense in his manner, seems barely able to contain his anger as he relates the suicide of a young, pregnant woman earlier that day.
At first there appears to be no obvious link between this event and any of those present at the dinner party, but the inspector has possession of the girl’s diary and from the information contained, he progressively gains acknowledgement from each of them that he or she had in fact known the woman in one way or another. Though none had had any immediate or direct hand in her death, there were circumstances and certain events that suggested each of them had had some lack of charity or level of responsibility for the tragic deterioration of the young woman’s circumstances. Indeed, it is the issue of ‘responsibility’ that seems to underlie, among others, the essence of this play, which proceeds like a peculiar kind of ‘whodunit?’ come morality tale.
The sense of any felt culpability rises and falls, much like a rollercoaster, for each member of the Birling family and Gerald Croft as the real identity of the inspector becomes unclear. But of them all it is Sheila Birling who emerges with an ‘arc’ progression from their experiences that night. Indeed, she is so changed in her outlook by what she learns and feels, that she challenges the steadfast defences of her family and her fiancé.
“Dramatic and dynamic”
In the end though Inspector Birling is not all he seems, but yet his interventions prove to have a prescient quality to them in how things further unfold. And just what was in the suitcase that the inspector picks up and leaves with?
It is suggested that An Inspector Calls became a staple of ‘so-called repertory classic drawing-room theatre’ after its early success, progressing further it would seem into established examinable school education. However, under Stephen Daldry’s direction and development, the work of the set designers and all staff associated with this production, the play has become evermore dramatic and dynamic.
The ‘drawing room’ is reduced to a doll’s house-like feature within the broader set. It is bright and affluent, an artifice surrounded by a contrasting, mucky and forlorn wasteland of dereliction, waste and poverty. It presents a truly dystopian image, which is repeated somewhat in the mood at the end. Outside the house, the inhabitants seem to represent huddled masses badged by their poverty and misery compared to the wealth and advantage of those within it.
The opening to the play is dramatically portentous with darkness, billowing smoke, flashes and noise, emphasising a dystopian feel that endures until the narrative begins. (So much so in fact that, having seen the production here a decade before, I wondered momentarily whether I was in the right theatre and about to watch the right play!)
Priestley is justly famed for this play, alongside his novels. From this left-leaning author and playwright, An Inspector Calls is so very well crafted in its interrogation of an unfair status quo. In this instance, it is superbly delivered by cast and crew. One is left with so many thoughts and issues that loiter long after the performance.
It has been said that this play not only referenced the period leading up to the First World War but that after the Second too. However, it would seem also to reference present times, especially through the eerie presence of onlookers, perhaps themselves victims of the social order of the day: the austerity and homelessness, the proxy conflicts throughout a world with attendant refugees, so-called economic migrants, where few have and so very many have not. Since 1912 we have come far but the attendant message is that we still have so far to go.
But be not afraid though! As in all human life, whatever the circumstances, there is room for occasional humour which, while present, is added frugally in this production.
Priestley’s masterpiece surely remains relevant today and, sadly, will do for some time to come. Especially when it is in the hands of those whose skills are responsible for this current and memorable production, it will provide a beacon to remind us to think about our own responsibilities.