J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Tue 08 to Sat 12 October) sees the return to the stage of Stephen Daldry’s multi award winning re-working of this classic production (originally for National Theatre).
All the basic elements of National Theatre’s original, and still very mysterious, play are here as the author focuses his thoughts on the social class divisions of late Victorian and early Edwardian society in Britain and the hypocrisy of the “Upper Classes”, but in this production, Stephen Daldry is not only looking back in time (as Priestley was when he wrote this play in 1945), but also playing with time itself. This new vision of this classic work will either add another layer of mystery to this work in general, and Inspector Goole in particular, or add another layer of confusion – perhaps a little of both.
Time is always a moveable concept in any play as we are always dealing with at least three different viewpoints of any work – the time that the story is set in, when the author wrote the work, and what time the audience are viewing the work in. All of these viewpoints (particularly the last one) can have an enormous effect upon how any play is viewed, and right from the opening moments of this production time-references are blurred between a meticulously crafted set (Designer Ian MacNeil) that brings to life a WW2 street shortly after an air-raid, and a out of time and place and scale “dolls’ house” of a building stretching up to the dark and sombre skies with its many floors and out of scale inhabitants. First we only hear and partially see our wealthy people celebrating a special event and like a Victorian dolls’ house opening, our family are revealed to us as our Inspector calls.
There is special and multi-layered significance in everything here, much of it of course coming from J B Priestley’s original script, but here Stephen Daldry’s production is adding and blending in to the original work layers of his own. As our story opens and our mysterious inspector begins to “play” with the inhabitants of this “dolls’ house”, this time frame of 1912 is constantly shifting an illusion of space in our heads and small visual clues throughout this production separate the time frame of his investigation with its careful attention to period costume detail with the time frame setting of our set.
Whether you are a fan of this multi-layered timeframe take on this work or not, the one thing that remains constant in this production is the care and attention to detail everywhere and the high quality of the performances from everyone. Watching a cast with this level of experience and ability play against and off each other is always a pleasure, and when they are bringing to life the words of a writer with the skill of J B Priestley, something special can happen, and it did here tonight with a principal cast made up of Liam Brennan (Inspector Goole), Christine Kavanagh (Mrs Birling), Jeffrey Harmer (Mr Birling), Alasdair Buchan (Gerald Croft), Chloe Orrock (Sheila Birling), Ryan Saunders (Eric Birling) and Linda Beckett (Edna).
With a wonderful script to work from, Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole links seemingly unconnected, and unknown to one another, actions of the Birling family and Gerald Croft to a young woman. Along the threads of his investigation, each is forced to examine their own actions in what role they played in the story of this young woman’s life. Just as we think that all is solved, in a typical mystery plot, J B Priestley with amazing skill deconstructs logically his original story and takes us in yet another direction, but of course there is still more to come.
This story lines here, and who our Inspector is, or even what he is, has never had any answers, and J B Priestley has written everything so perfectly here that there will never be definitive answers to many questions (well I hope that there never are). This is writing at its very best, always asking questions and leaving more to be asked along the way.
A little obscure to this story and this review, but if there are any readers out there who read comics, then parallels with DC comics’ character “The Phantom Stranger” (first appearance in 1952) and our Inspector Goole can be made. Both men dress in similar attire and both men seem to be far more than they appear to be as they ask questions to which they already seem to know the answers. Both also seem to be able to move in time as their investigations require. Who or what either man really is is never explained.
Review by Tom King