'An Inspector Calls': It speaks a truth we can't ignore

In 1992 'An Inspector Calls' was an unlikely choice for the National Theatre. Yet its run is only now ending. What made it important?
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When an inspector calls at the Garrick Theatre this week for the last performance of its current run, it is the change-cadgers who'll miss him most. Since Stephen Daldry's eight-and-a- half-year old, award-laden production of J B Priestley's play took up residence at the Garrick in 1995, it has become as much a feature of the Charing Cross Road as the second-hand bookshops, the iffy minicab drivers, or the rivers of Friday-night vomit outside the Hippodrome. And its two hours of conscience-stirring drama have a palpable effect on the punters who spill on to the pavements at 9.45. They dig deeper into their pockets than the average West End audience does. As one homeless woman told me after Thursday night's performance, "It beats the crowd who come to see the musicals. They're much more tight-fisted."

When an inspector calls at the Garrick Theatre this week for the last performance of its current run, it is the change-cadgers who'll miss him most. Since Stephen Daldry's eight-and-a- half-year old, award-laden production of J B Priestley's play took up residence at the Garrick in 1995, it has become as much a feature of the Charing Cross Road as the second-hand bookshops, the iffy minicab drivers, or the rivers of Friday-night vomit outside the Hippodrome. And its two hours of conscience-stirring drama have a palpable effect on the punters who spill on to the pavements at 9.45. They dig deeper into their pockets than the average West End audience does. As one homeless woman told me after Thursday night's performance, "It beats the crowd who come to see the musicals. They're much more tight-fisted."

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, which owns the Garrick, is turfing out An Inspector Calls on 14 April to make room for Feelgood, a satire on New Labour starring Henry Goodman and Nigel Planer. It's a tribute to the strength of Daldry's show that a new home has been found for the Inspector by a rival management. In September, the play takes up residence at the Playhouse Theatre, where a refurbished production will open. Even the might of Lord Lloyd-Webber can't silence Priestley's clarion call for the redistribution of wealth.

That it contains a hefty dose of left-wing ideology makes An Inspector Calls one of the West End's least likely long-distance runners. The tenacity of other productions is more explicable. Big-bottomed, baseball-capped pensioners from Baton Rouge have kept The Mousetrap cocked for 48 seasons; it has become a place of tourist pilgrimage, more like a trip to Madame Tussaud's than a visit to the theatre. (The 12-year-old Gothic melodrama of The Woman in Black is its complimentary chamber of horrors.)

Accounting for the success of big international musicals is a doddle. We have had 16 years of Les Misérables because London ticket prices are lower than those in New York. As for the 11-year-long reign of Blood Brothers, well, like the life of Kaspar Hauser, some enigmas will never be understood.

An Inspector Calls is a rather different proposition. It isn't a musical. It doesn't have a shifting cast of soap stars and comedians. It can't promise the spectacle of a hard-up Hollywood actress showing her bum, or even a topless Lord Archer. For 40 years the play was a stand-by of am-dram societies and unadventurous repertory companies; one of those well-made plays requiring a fireplace, a dining table and a cast in evening dress.

Its thriller-shaped plot lends itself to being played like an Agatha Christie. The mysterious Inspector Goole arrives at the privileged Birling household and reveals that each member of the family has contributed, in one way or another, to drive a young woman, Eva Smith, to suicide. Mr Birling, it emerges, has sacked her from his factory, where she was a union activist. Mrs Birling persuaded the local charity board to deny her aid. The Birlings' alcoholic son, Eric, impregnated her. The Birlings' daughter, Sheila, had her dismissed from her job in a department store. Sheila's fiancé Gerald took her on as a mistress, then abandoned her. Everybody dunnit, just as they did in Murder on the Orient Express.

In September 1992, however, a bright-eyed young director named Stephen Daldry ­ now known, even in Baton Rouge, as the director of Billy Elliot ­ demonstrated to London audiences that there was more to the piece than this. His Expressionistic production for the Royal National Theatre ­ itself based on a previous version he had overseen at the York Theatre Royal in 1989 ­ revived the play's radical heart.

In 1946, when the first London production was mounted, Inspector Goole's exposure of and vengeance upon the conservative complacency of the Birlings was perfectly attuned to the utopianism of Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government. Daldry discovered that audiences in 1992, already dog-sick of John Major and "back to basics", responded to Priestley's demands for a fresh start. "I suppose it was a call to arms," says Daldry. "And the call to arms has been surpassed by a Labour government, but I still find that people respond to the play. It's not just saying, 'let's go out and get a different government'. It's 'let's go out and a get a new moral perspective'. What's kept it alive is that as the political landscape has changed, Priestley's play has yielded to different political priorities. There was a moment when everybody was going on about single mothers, and the play features a single mother and a debate about whether she should get state support or be supported by the father. So the political arguments within the play ­ whether they're about collective or individual responsibility or the idea of society ­ have never aged. It has kept its potential for commentary on the times we live in."

An Inspector Calls isn't Brecht, though. It wouldn't inspire anybody to, say, throw a brick through the dining room window of a rich industrialist. It pricks your conscience, but it also congratulates you for having one. In 1992, Daldry's production was read by many theatre-goers as a critique of Tory disregard for the Eva Smiths of the late 20th century. But audience members who were Conservative voters could take comfort from the historicism of the piece. The play is set in 1912. The villains represent 19th, not 20th-century values. For audiences in 1946 as well as 1992, the play was an attack upon the injustices of the past, not the present; a protest against the supposed moral hypocrisy of their grandparents.

As such, An Inspector Calls fits neatly into a tradition of plays and fiction produced between the 1930s and the 1960s that scored easy points off the generations who lived before the First World War, before Bloomsbury and before Keynesian economics. Watch the movies that were inspired by these plays, and you'll get the point: Gaslight, Pink String and Sealing Wax, and Hatter's Castle, films which looked back to the era before the Great War with disgust, and imagined the past as a foreign country full of impregnated mill girls and granite-faced patriarchs. It becomes clearer if you then read Priestley's 1967 essay, Disturbing, and note his criticism of John Osborne's generation of playwrights for sending their punters home in a troubled frame of mind. It is Priestley's subtle flattery, I suspect, which has extended the play's appeal to audiences which take a dim view of socialism.

"It still speaks to things that are true about England and things which are no longer true," argues Wendy Lesser, an American critic who shadowed Daldry on the production for her book, A Director Calls (1997). "It plays both nostalgia and a sense of social concern. But it has circus-like, spectacular qualities. It has real rain, which will make you wet if you sit in the front row. It has a collapsing house. And it has the quality of a mystery. It was advertised as a thriller. That's what got me to go."

Lesser is right to identify spectacle as another source of the production's longevity. Audiences bought tickets for Miss Saigon to see a model helicopter land on the stage. Ian MacNeil's set for An Inspector Calls, which literalises the fall of the house of Birling by bringing the set down in a shower of sparks and broken crockery, is as impressive as anything offered by brassier, more lavish West End theatrical events.

For Daldry, the reprieve of his production is a source of satisfaction. "Priestley always understood himself to be a radical dramatist, but somehow he was pigeon-holed as a respectable old pot-boiler. And it seemed to me that politically and formally, he was more of an experimentalist than people ever give him credit for. I'm happy that what's basically a left-wing play is still sitting in the middle of the West End, and that people still come to it."

On the evidence of those on the pavement outside the theatre, if beggars could be choosers, London's West End would bear the neon name of J B Priestley from Piccadilly to the Aldwych. And not that of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I'd bet.

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