(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 October)
That JB Priestley’s 70-year old play An Inspector Calls is now on its 25th national tour is a tribute to director Stephen Daldry’s now iconic production of 1992. Daldry has kept a firm, occasionally revisionist, eye of these re-cast productions, and the effect is as taut and mind-provoking as first time round.
Ian MacNeil’s set – that doll’s house cage teetering at an impossible angle above rain-washed cobblestones and wartime débris, too small to house its Edwardian occupants with all their pretensions and complacency – still rivets the audience’s attention as the curtain (itself part of the action) rises. Reality has clashed with abstraction visually, just as it does in the script. The discordant sounds which punctuate the action add their own frisson.
Liam Brennan is something of an oddball Inspector Goole, though he holds one’s attention. Tim Woodward’s Arthur Birling, self-satisfaction in a starched shirt-front, and Caroline Wildi as his wife Sybil, a soft-spoken, hard-edged matron in glittering crimson are the Inspector’s first interrogatees. Matthew Douglas as Gerald Croft, whose engagement to the Birlings’ daughter Sheila is being celebrated as the play begins, takes the character away from jeune premier territory to interesting effect.
Sheila and her brother Eric contrast well in Katherine Jack and Hamish Riddle’s characterisations. Katherine Jack manages to win understanding – for Sheila’s selfishness and the girlish petulance which contributed to Eve Smith’s grim end – and final sympathy for her acceptance of that responsibility. The trouble with Hamish Riddle is that his Eric starts on too high – one might even say, hysterical – a note, so that his final outburst with its alcohol-fuelled maudlin self-pity has no platform on which to build.
An Inspector Calls is at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 10 October. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (1-5 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (23-27 February).