★★★★★ | An Inspector Calls, The Playhouse Theatre
J.B. Priestley’s 1940s play An Inspector Calls had languished somewhat until Stephen Daldry’s (The Crown, Billy Elliot, The Hours) landmark 1992 production.
The piece was much loved by amateur dramatic societies and small regional theatres, in part due to its seven-person cast and one room staging. Daldry’s revival, almost 25 years ago, at The National Theatre, gave the play a fresh lease of life with a radical new staging and a dramatic set design by Ian MacNeil. Now restaged again in London at The Playhouse Theatre, after long-running regional tours, this stylish and evocative revival is still feeling as fresh and pertinent as it did in the 90s.
In 1912 the wealthy upper middle-class Birling family are celebrating their daughter’s engagement to the son of a prominent family. The evening in their dining room in Bromley is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole who tells them of the death of a young woman by a particularly gruesome suicide. The family are at first irked by the intrusion on their celebrations but gradually come to see that they each had a role in bringing about the woman’s downfall.
The stage is dominated by a giant dolls’ house raised high above the stage. This has to be one of the most breathtaking stagings of the last few decades. To describe the workings of the set would ruin the surprises but needless to say, it’s a clever design that enhances and doesn’t swamp the play’s message. Even though the smaller stage of The Playhouse feels a little cramped for the production, it’s still powerful and atmospheric. The cast are strong, and special mention must go to the excellent Barbara Marten as the monstrous Sybil. She imbues a touch of high camp without detracting from the horror of her snobbish coldness.
Can a revival of a play from seventy years ago, about a family from a hundred years ago still speak to today’s audiences? The answer is a resounding yes. The theme is self-interest, prejudice and how people use others weaker than them to get ahead. With recent world events and the scary rise of far right wing politicians, it couldn’t feel fresher. Or more chilling.
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An Inspector Calls plays at The Playhouse Theatre