An Inspector Calls – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, September 2019
As one of the millions who studied JB Priestley’s staple of the curriculum at school, and as a huge fan of both the play and its first film adaptation, I was curious to see Stephen Daldry’s long-running and critically acclaimed version at Hull New Theatre. And I’m delighted to say that Daldry has taken a story that could have become a relic of British literature and tweaked it enough to make it as relevant as ever in these turbulent times.
Priestley’s play premiered in 1945, but is set in 1912, and it is through this source material that Daldry has focused his gaze, highlighting the class and social boundaries that existed and still very much exist today, and breaking them down before our very eyes. The story is now well-known, but should still be marvelled at as a premise that seems simple on the face of it, yet holds a depth that bears repeat readings or viewings. Daldry’s take on it means that this version, that first took theatres by storm in 1992, is here to stay.
“Incredible stage design”
Taking nothing away from the acting talent on show (more of that later), one of the real stars of this production is Iain McNeill’s incredible stage design, that moves the setting of the story from a staid, traditional upper-class Edwardian dining room to a bleak, post-Blitz landscape, courtesy of raising the house up on rickety stilts and gradually coaxing the characters out from the comfort of their home. Add in a moody score and copious amounts of rain, and the bright lights and jollity of the engagement party soon become distant and decadent memories.
The story centres on the Birling family, headed by wealthy industrialist and local politician Arthur, who believes his social standing allows him to enjoy a lifestyle of pure privilege. Celebrating the engagement of his daughter to a rival magnate’s son, the family are rudely interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole, whose calm detachment immediately puts them on their guard. Announcing that a young woman has committed suicide by swallowing detergent, Goole systematically picks his way through the assembled family members, and ties each and every one of them to the dead girl, despite Arthur’s attempts to use his social standing to suggest they should above such allegations.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, I’ll say no more, only that it’s one that should be read in its original form, and also seen in this adaptation. It’s quite a compliment to say that I’d be as happy watching this stage play as I would the 1954 film version starring the wonderful Alastair Sim. Liam Brennan pitches his Inspector Goole at just the right level, moving through the gears from cool, calm and collected, to frustrated, disbelieving and irate, revealing his sense of outrage at how the upper classes believe they should be immune from the rules that bind the rest of society. Chloe Orrock shines as Sheila, the only one of the Birling family to truly grasp how wretched their behaviour has been, while Christine Kavanagh as Arthur’s wife Sybil manages to make the audience laugh despite her haughty and holier-than-thou attitude.
Despite the quality of the source material, there was a danger of Priestley’s work becoming simply a historical work that was very much of its time. But this production has not only salvaged it, but also shows it to be a truly original piece of writing. The use of street children and the ghosts of those who fought in the Second World War on stage give this a haunting feel, as if we’re being challenged on whether we’ve done the best we can to make the country and the world a better place and a fairer one to live in. Goole’s closing passionate plea for lessons to be learned couldn’t be more relevant than in the febrile and feral atmosphere created today, making the story chillingly modern and a must-see.