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.
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