As eerie bomb sirens wail, and artificial fog crawls off the warped, wooden stage–completely enveloping the unsuspecting audience–it’s hard not to feel instantly transported into a desolate, shambled world. But Stephen Daldry’s West End revival of J B Priestley’s 1945 play, “An Inspector Calls”, does just that.
From the moment Stephen Warbeck’s chilling Hitchcockian score begins, and the haunting, almost post-apocalyptic setting, designed by Ian MacNeil, is revealed—which fuses together a 1940s, bomb-blasted landscape with a 1912 oversized dollhouse on stilts—it is clear that this production is set outside of one single time frame.
Daldry, best known for directing award-winning hits such as “Billy Elliot” and “The Hours”, has given this revival a uniquely postmodern twist that serves as a vitriolic commentary on society.
Young street urchins scour the rain-slicked, littered streets outside of the Birling household for scraps of food, establishing that this family represents a typical, individually minded, industrialist, Edwardian household.
An enigmatic man, dressed in an unassuming trench coat and tilted hat, lingers outside of the bizarre-looking household. Handing a fresh orange to a young boy in ragged clothing, he becomes the symbolic representation of aspects of humanity that the Birlings have long forgotten—or perhaps never knew in the first place.
The Mysterious Inspector Goole
The mysterious man is revealed by Edna, the elderly parlour maid, to be Police Inspector Goole, brilliantly portrayed by Nicholas Woodeson. When he calls at the house of the affluent Birling family, interrupting a dinner party celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to the successful Gerald Croft, the family’s lives are altered in a completely unexpected way.
One by one, the Inspector interrogates the members of the Birling household as part of an investigation of the apparent suicide of a young, working-class woman. Not one to bite his tongue, Inspector Goole reveals the deepest and darkest secrets and actions of each member of the family that led to the girl’s ultimate demise.
By collectively failing on the basic essence of humanity and compassion—from Mr. Birling firing the young woman for demanding a raise, to Gerald Croft having an illicit affair with her—the family members are all accused of contributing to the young woman’s death by the vehement Inspector Goole.
A Goole-ish Message
Perhaps even more vehement than Inspector Goole is the overall message of the play—a seething critique of individualism–and the lack of subtly in its delivery. Although slightly overacted at times, the ensemble manages to effectively capture the selfish essence of the industrialist stereotypes.
Most resistant to accepting an ounce of responsibility and shattering the ostentatious illusion is the immaculately put-together Mrs. Birling—dripping with jewels and a perfectly coiffed, fiery red bouffant hairdo—portrayed by Sandra Duncan.
In contrast, Marianne Oldham, portraying the Birling’s young, egotistical daughter, Sheila, is most affected by the Inspector’s interrogation. Sick and tired of putting on airs, she becomes the chief voice of reason among the clan, encouraging the others to break out of their elitist facades and reveal the truth to Inspector Goole—and, most importantly, to themselves.