You'd think we'd be calling it An Inspector Palls by now. Stephen Daldry's Expressionist, Fall-of-the-House-of-Birling version of the JB Priestley war-horse seems to have been running forever. But seeing the first night of its transfer, after a short break, to the Playhouse, I was delighted to discover that the production is just as fresh and thrilling as it was at its National Theatre premiere nearly a decade ago. The brilliant staging concept clearly has an inexhaustible vitality, being a rare combination of the visually spectacular and the thematically penetrating.
Set in 1912 on the eve of the First World War, the piece was written towards the end of the Second. In exposing the callous selfishness of an Edwardian industrialist's family, Priestley's drama was sending a message to the people of his own time. At once a thriller and, in effect, a fervent party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party which was elected in 1945, the play is a call for collective conscience and mutual responsibility. The Birlings of this world must not be allowed to get away with it ever again.
Daldry and his designer Ian MacNeil, in a stroke of genius, decided to make the dialogue between those two periods vividly explicit and an open challenge to our own values. So here the Birlings' celebration party for their daughter's engagement does not take place in the usual picture-frame dining room set, but in an oversized doll's house, precariously perched on stilts in a blitzed landscape of louring skies, bomb craters and wet cobblestones. Inside it's 1912; outside it's 1945, and it's into this arena that the Inspector summons each member of the Birling clan as he uncovers their various roles in the suicide of a young woman. In his demob suit, this eerily omniscient moral policeman is also a social evangelist, delivering his speech about the need for compassion directly to the audience. A silent crowd of onlookers – ex-servicemen, refugees and urchins who represent the post-war generation – eloquently reinforce his indictment of the Birling ethos.
Never can a radical make-over have been truer to the spirit of the author's intentions, nor a civics lesson have felt so continually exciting. The tension never slackens, from the moment at the start when the all-clear siren sounds and a small boy clambers out an air raid shelter, kicks a bakelite radio to life and struggles to lift the heavy red curtains which will eventually rise to reveal MacNeil's breathtaking, rain-swept vision of juxtaposed worlds.
The twists of Priestley's well-made plot can seem a mite predictable but, as directed here, there's an arresting urgency to each development. In a coup de théâtre that would induce shivers down the spine however many times you saw the piece, the doll's house topples forward, at the moment when the family's collective guilt is established, sending the Birling crockery and glasses smashing onto the cobbles. And then, marvellously, it rears upright again during the period of false security near the end, when it seems that the clan has been left off the hook and can resume their complacent ways.
The current cast is excellent. Edward Peel is wonderfully aggressive and roaringly Yorkshire as the bullying blustering patriarch and Diane Fletcher offers a terrifying study in moneyed disdain and denial as his imperious wife. My only problem with Niall Buggy's quizzical, passionate Inspector is that, being Irish, he would surely have been neutral during the Second World War. I reckon that innumerable warehouses of crockery and glassware will be shattered before this production closes.
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