THEATRE / Out of the doll's house: Robert Hanks finds something missing after An Inspector Calls moves house

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The Independent Culture
THE MOST striking thing about Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls is the distortion of scale: Ian McNeil's set turns the solidly bourgeois Birling family into ogres inhabiting an Edwardian doll's house, swollen heads occasionally poking out of tiny windows to peer into the surrounding wasteland. The acting is larger than life, too - particularly Kenneth Cranham's savage Inspector Goole, come to lay responsibility for the suicide of a young girl at the family's door. Hectoring, sarcastic, even faintly camp, Cranham's performance at times seemed strained and melodramatic; but he made a persuasive emotional focus for Daldry's expressionist rethinking of the play.

With the move across the river, and an almost complete re-casting, the scale has shifted. In the plusher, more intimate settings of the Aldwych, the house no longer looks, as it did among the concrete of the National, like a little island of cosy bourgeois respectability. Wealth now looks like the norm, not an aberration or a mark of insensitivity to the plight of the masses. The wasteland, no longer threatening to engulf, is reduced to a little ribbon of wet cobbles.

Cranham, too, looks at times as though he's been built on a completely different scale from everyone else on stage - an Action Man dumped in with a Subbuteo team. The change is most noticeable when he's playing against Julian Glover's Arthur Birling, patriarch and champion of Capital. Glover is just a shade too smooth and urbane, lacking both the forcefulness and the social vulnerability of the self-made man, so that the moments when the Inspector is at his throat have the intensity of watching a pitbull play with a ball of wool.

Judy Parfitt's ramrod-spined Mrs Birling, too, doesn't lose her self-possession as completely as the production demands when her own part in the girl's death finally emerges. The final scene, when she and her husband recover their poise, is less a frantic scramble for sanity than a smoothing of ruffled feathers.

The younger characters are more successful: as the weakling son, Scott Handy doesn't achieve a sense of real emotional release; but he does convey a sense of the awkwardness and need to escape that have driven the boy to drink, and he has enough boyish charm to let you know why the dead girl might have tolerated him, and why his mother has faith in his utter innocence.

Sylvestra Le Touzel, playing Sheila Birling, the newly engaged daughter, is a convincingly tough cookie, who you can easily imagine sacking a shopgirl on a whim. Her ability to match Cranham's fury makes up for anything lacking in vulnerability. And Louis Hilyer, the only other survivor from the National, is excellent, perhaps the only performance that completely bridges the gap between Priestley's naturalism and Daldry's stylisation.

All the same, the way JB Priestley's drawing-room metaphysics has been transformed remains startling. Priestley himself denied that he was a naturalistic playwright, in a line quoted in the programme; but you only have to look at the fastidious scene-setting in the published text - specifying the precise positioning of the fireplace, for instance - to see how wrong he was.

There is a huge leap from his vaguely eerie brush with the inexplicable, in which there is an idea that the Inspector is some kind of supernatural figure, to Daldry's expressionist fury, with its suggestive earthquakes, louring skies and invading army of cloth-capped extras, all prefiguring the First World War (the play is set in 1912) and the consequent social upheaval.

In its first incarnation, Daldry's production had a pitch of emotion which was wearying for some of the time, but also magnificent. The experience isn't quite so harsh now, the frankly socialist message a trifle blunted; but it remains a fascinating production of a flawed play, and it's still hard to see how anyone could ever do it better.

Continues in repertory at the Aldwych Theatre, London. (Box office 071 836 6404)

(Photograph omitted)