Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2022

An Inspector Calls


Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Stephen Daldry directs (Associate Director Charlotte Peters, Assistant/Resident Director Xanthus), Ian MacNeil designs the set lit by Rick Fisher with Stephen Warbeck’s film-noir music and Sound by Sebastian Frost. Fight Director’s Terry King.

Francis Campbell is the Ladies’ Maker, Michaela Clegg the men’s and Mark Costello the Inspector’s tailoring. Rachel Preston, Hand & Lock, Caroline Groves, Roger Watson Laces, Cornelia James (Gloves), Gabriele Firth (Dyer) and Sarah Ford (Decorations) assist variously.

Till November 19th and touring


‘And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’ Those devastating final words from Inspector Goole – lead protagonist of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 An Inspector Calls – can stir like few final words from any 20th century character. Both shattering and wonderful, they resonate down nearly 80 years to stand us all in the dock. Rattle your jewellery. This play outlasts us all.

Whether it’ll ever return to what it was before Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production is another matter. And Daldry’s recently overhauled it completely. If you’ve seen it a few years ago, be prepared. It looks the same. Then isn’t.

The brilliance of Daldry’s concept still lies in taking the 1912-set play – a year so many Priestley works start in – and dragging it into the Blitz in which it was written. Not updating, but lifting and dropping a piece of 1912 with its characters bang in the middle of an air raid which smokes and writhes around it like judgement, as do the blanket-lugging bombed-out refugees in their own country. H.G. Wells – and Shaw – are mentioned.  And there’s a hint of time-travel here.

The production’s speeded-up too. There’s only a faux-interval where the old interval was, and the play runs straight-through at one hour forty-five.

An air-raid siren. Two children play in front of the curtains; when it rises they try tuning a radio set that brings them the film-noir expressionism – and surreal house that opens up in Ian MacNeil’s still astonishing set. Even if you’ve seen this production – and it’s the only one now – you might forget some of the extraordinary detail. It’s a production worth seeing twice too, thriller or not. Not really. It’s a moral tale and a socialist one at that.

When dry ice clears we find Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole playing with a young boy and a housekeeper (Frances Campbell’s Edna) finally announcing him to the house, an Edwardian baroquerie with copper dome. Staying out on the cobbled desolate foreground, where everyone ends, Goole never enters this doll’s house on stilts with its little fire-escape, through which the first scene’s set muffled and within.

It’s where Jeffrey Harmer’s Arthur Birling burls pomp like a stomacher. Like Brennan, he’s returning to a role not tweaked with the musical-hall exaggerations of new cast members, though unlike Brennan, he enters into these.

Harmer’s bonhomie-to-bully alternates bullish confidence and Edwardian optimism with a bleak, furious defensiveness. Priestley’s Cumberland-cramped role is almost one-dimensional but this production allows Harmer a few surprisingly loving gestures towards his son. But nearly every hypocrisy’s exposed first.

The complacency of a well-to-do industrial magnate’s family celebrates the engagement of Birling’s daughter Sheila (Evlyne Oyedokun) to Simon Cotton’s Gerald Croft, son of his sometime rival.

There’s talk of profit, keeping down the price of labour, the nonsense of socialism. You get the feeling this 1912 raft is a bit like the Titanic, about to hit something. It’s a pity Birling’s smug reference to it: ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’ is muffled. And the assurance of no war with Germany.

It’s difficult to imagine this solid if diminutive house being anything other, or that at the end the Blitz seems to have caught up with the Birlings who after fireworks and shatterings, huddle in blankets like homeless Eastenders after the all-clear. The Inspector’s words – repeated by the enlightened Sheila – are being learned as predicted.

Rick Fisher’s lighting is as stark and full of smoking glooms as the 1940s movies this production references. Stephen Warbeck’s superb noirish score tends to underscore points with a touch of self-parody; Sebastian Frost’s sound might feel a notch high in this theatre.

The four Birlings and Gerald find themselves drawn in reluctantly to answer Goole’s queries about the death of Eva Smith, a bright, proud, ‘very pretty’ twenty-four-year-old who swallowed chemicals and dies in agony. ‘She wasn’t very pretty when I saw her’ remarks Goole, needling from the first like a grand inquisitor who seems to know the answers already as Sheila, quickest to acknowledge her guilt, realises. Goole has Eva’s diary.

Brennan’s light-toned, ironical sometimes very-hands on Goole isn’t the seraphically remorseless Alistair Sims of the 1954 film. His alien Scottishness, verbal and physical mobility marks him as opposite in every way. But he’s just as steel-trapping. Brennan makes him more youthful too, more improvisatory in tone. His quicksilveriness makes him more unpredictable, except to Sheila. Goole also quietly sheds outer clothing, as if revealing layers of himself and his witnesses. When he dons them again – retrieving his hat from the boy (Caspian Black) who’s held it all along – you feel authority and oracular prophesy descend.

Stages of guilt move from Birling himself dismissing Eva for leading a strike to Sheila’s shocking demand that dress assistant Eva be dismissed for smirking at her in the milliner’s, seen in a mirror; to Gerald who knew her as Daisy Renton. Gerald – already attached to Sheila – acts warm-heartedly rescuing Eva from a sexual predator, but inevitably responds to her own grateful warmth and need for love; and her equal knowledge it’s temporary.

Like all characters here, Cotton plays out more, loudly as the production dictates, so subtleties and compromises blur. Gerald’s both rational and complacent like Birling, keen to question Goole’s methods after clearing his head, slip back into his previous self. But he’s also warm-hearted. The more bullish side to Gerald is emphasized here. By the end you realise Sheila and Eric ‘the young being more impressionable’ as Goole claims are changed utterly. ‘He inspected us all right’ both admit at different points. Youngish Gerald, praised by the Inspector for lending Eva some happiness, you feel is in the balance.

The volume’s turned up elsewhere though. Oyedokun brings warmth too as well as Edwardian music-hall and a clear, ringing rationale to her role, a biting truth-seeker. Priestley marks Sheila with ‘hysterical’ outbursts and Oyedokun takes this to the kind of ‘Palace’ entertainment-halls Eva Smith, Eric and Gerald resort to.

There’s throughout a fierceness to her Sheila, a way of standing and moving that stamps out someone who’ll find her own path. But tenderness for her brother and scuffed respect for Gerald is expressively marked. Oyedokun’s more glamorous than some Sheilas. It renders her crumpled humility the more potent.

It’s only when Gerald temporarily leaves to clear his head and mourn that Eva’s catastrophic meetings unravel: with young Eric Birling (George Rowlands), a drunk, sensitive, vulnerable young man; later with (also returning) Christine Kavanagh’s callous matriarch Sybil Birling. Again Rowlands emphasises music-hall judderings in Daldry’s neon-enhanced Edwardiana.

In such a speaking-out production, Rowlands’ Eric conveys a need for love, sensitivity, self-knowledge, ultimately decency. He doesn’t stick in the more hysterical side of his role (Terry King’s fight direction memorable here). There’s touching interplay between him and Oyedokun, sheltering in a blanket.

Kavanagh’s adamantine Sybil Birling is a role as whale-boned as the marvellous costumes (led by Francis Campbell) that adorn this production, with Sheila’s almost-wedding dress looking spectral amidst ruins. Kavanagh in regal burgundy manages some human touches, and her comic assumption of Edna’s chair always being available is one of Daldry’s quietly devastating touches – as is the red carpet rolled out onto cobbled ground.

There’s several more twists which if you don’t know the play will keep you guessing till the last moment.

Campbell’s Edna is almost silent but increasingly makes her disdain for the Birlings felt in some neat chair-shifting. Amali Carmen Gill’s Girl, and Niall Ryan Saunders’ Older Boy add peripheral liveliness to the future looking back over 33 years. Eight supernumeries bring their own witness to bear.

This is still an outstanding production we might take for granted. Seeing it again still shocks, especially the touches of comedy and music-hall exaggeration, making Edwardian expressionism screech amidst the all-clears. Less tender than conventional readings that preceded it, it’s more truthful to the socialist Priestley than any before. Its relevance now burns back at us, as if in fire and blood and anguish we must learn it all again.