An Inspector Calls, Novello, London
Wednesday 30 September 2009
When Stephen Daldry's production of J B Priestley's drawing-room thriller was first mounted 17 years ago, it prized the barnacles off a play that had become a hoary staple of repertory theatre, giving it a bold, blazingly fresh expressionist makeover.
It's been touring pretty much non-stop ever since. By now encrusted with awards, it is paying another visit to the West End. Should you still bother to call on it?
Written in 1945, Priestley's play points an accusing socialist finger at a smug, selfish Edwardian industrialist's family for having fallen down on the job of being human by collectively contributing to the death of a young, working-class woman, and shakes them out of their cocooned comfort along the way.
Ian MacNeil's design, which pulls off the coup of setting two periods on stage simultaneously, is still as striking as ever. The first thing you notice on entering the auditorium are the buckled, cracked floorboards protruding from under the curtain. As the curtain rises to the unnerving score for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, an ominous, post-Second World War landscape is revealed. Smog swirls, and urchins kick around on cobblestones slick with rain. The Birlings' 1912 home is perched – like an outsize doll's house – above a bomb crater.
When Inspector Goole arrives to question the family, he's a sort of ghostly emissary from the future, and the Birlings must step into a chilly, accusing world to meet him. Their refusal to accept any responsibility for the fates of others comes crashing down and so, literally, does their house, sending crockery flying like a pack of cards.
Daldry's staging flirts fearlessly with melodramatic excess and skilfully ratchets up the tension, but many of the performances now have a second-hand feel. When Nicholas Woodeson's cuddly-looking Inspector cries: "A girl has died tonight!", his voice breaks, but the actor fails to tap the buzzing undercurrent of anger in Priestley's character.
Sandra Duncan gives an imperiously over-the-top turn as Mrs Birling. Glaring out from beneath her hideous marmalade coiffure, she spars with the Inspector through clenched teeth, and has has a sneer worthy of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Marianne Oldham fares best of all as the Birlings' capricious daughter, who discovers an unquiet conscience.
To 14 November (0844 482 5170)
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Christmas comes early to Hong Kong, as millions of bank notes spill out onto busy street
- 3 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 4 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview is finally released after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food