The scene of the crime

An Inspector Calls opened in 1992; Garrick Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
An Inspector Calls opened in 1992

Garrick Theatre, London

When Stephen Daldry's reworking of JB Priestley's 1944 thriller opened at the Lyttleton, the inspector's parting shot had more than a ring of truth about it. "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other." The conclusion was drawn, it seemed, not just from the unjust social conditions of pre-First World War industrial England, where the play is set, or the time of writing, but also from the malaise-ridden Tory era. Many awards and eight casts later, the play continues to point its finger with topical precision.

The production's freshness undoubtedly owes much to its robust directorial concept, which brings out the non-realist essence of a seemingly conventional drawing-room drama through Ian McNeil's expressionistic set design. A cynic might argue that the mixed-era landscape is an inspired insurance policy: the show will always be stolen by the visuals, which reflect the play's message about collective accountability.

Certainly, the curtain-raiser, in which three Blitz children lead us to a rain-drenched, cobbled wasteland where street lamps illuminate a bomb crater, can make the most jaded jaw drop. It's fair to say, also, that the current cast is strong but not striking; Pip Miller's Inspector Goole, for example, resembles a subdued Peter Sissons, competent rather than scaring and not half as imposing as Kenneth Cranham was. But like the story itself, in which each member of the grotesquely smug Birling family is made to acknowledge their hand in the suicide of a young working- class woman, Daldry's bold reconfiguration is more than the sum of its parts.

Priestley's reason for writing An Inspector Calls - as a socialist rallying cry on the eve of the '45 general election - has become unexpectedly poignant since last May. A few years ago, the final sequence, in which the elder Birlings revert to self-interest after being told that the investigation was a hoax, might have seemed like more overstatement - the play has already hammered home how protective of their own skins they are.

But what comes across now is not so much the message, "these people never learn" as the suggestion, "these people learnt and then forgot". Alison Fiske's wonderfully imperious Mrs Birling is hoist with her own petard after insisting that the father of the young woman's child be "compelled to confess in public his responsibility" for their deaths, only to find that the villain is her own feckless son. She lets herself off the hook, as does John Bardon's self-made Northern bulldog Mr Birling, but not before they reveal something like real anguish in the drawn-out silences Daldry has them grind to a halt in. The real enemy of community is not so much the person without a heart, as the person whose conscience is inconsistent. Those who pledge, but don't deliver, perhaps.

The two younger Birlings, who face up to their faults, might provide a counterpoint of hope, but the way the piece is structured - as a prophesy of merited destruction that ends back at the beginning in a hellish loop - suggests that Priestley was guarded in his optimism: no lesson is ever fully learnt. I had feared this visit would be like a duty call to a sickly relative, but Daldry's Inspector is in good health and alarmingly up-to- the-minute.

Dominic Cavendish

Garrick Theatre. Booking to April (0171-494 5085).