Returning to see JB Priestley’s classic play in what is now seen as a classic production, this time for a fourth time, might seem excessive. Indeed on four viewings one should be rather too familiar with the play and with the production. It is certainly one of the most memorable pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. That said, having seen it again last night I know that I would happily see it again and again. What is it that will draw me back you may well ask. Well firstly the timeless quality of the play, the poignancy that it still holds, the relevance of the argument. It all sits comfortably and yet uncomfortably in the present. Priestley’s inspector shreds the lives of the Birling family and those around them with such incisive precision that the traits that he exposes have a rawness that stings a contemporary sensibility. This production is not just classic, it is timeless.

The company are first class, the bluff arrogance of Arthur Birling delivered with force by Jeffrey Harmer, the brittle snobbbery and privilege of Sybil his wife is razor sharp in the hands of Christine Kavanagh and the entitled attitudes of their son Eric have such relevance to a modern audience in George Rowlands excellent performance. Evlyne Oyedokun is extraordinary as spoilt daughter Sheila, bringing a flavour of music hall comedy to the role that I had not seen before, but one that works well in this revival. Simon Cotton as her fiancé is full of bluster and bravado at the start but as the cracks appear in all of their stories he falls convincingly apart. Frances Campbell has that difficult task of being an invaluable part of the whole despite not having a word to say, and her constant presence is perfectly delivered, there but not there as the family treat her with total disdain.

Photographs: Mark Douet

Liam Brennan is the inspector, unswaying in his interrogation, relentlessly pushing on and on as the family squirm and attempt to wriggle out from under his questioning. It’s a flawless performance that at every turn brings you back to the realities of the story, and what dark realities they are.

So in every sense this play delivers a dark truth and that dark truth is heightened by one of the most incredible pieces of stage design for many years. The costumes are of course precisely in period but the mechanics of the staging, the soundscape and the lighting, the special effects are breathtaking, from the moment the ragged urchins run through the audience and reveal what lies behind the red velvet curtain. Swirling smoke, constant rain and drizzle and the towering Edwardian edifice that is the Birling home, their safe and privileged space that rises above the masses below. This is designer Ian MacNeil’s masterpiece and in collaboration, as this must have been, with director Stephen Daldry it is hard to imagine that this play will ever be given a better production.

In a short footnote something became very clear to those of us who are regular theatre goers. An Inspector Calls is on the school curriculum and therefore will attract school audiences. I have no objection to young people being introduced to live theatre, they are after all the future of theatre if it is to survive. So why is it then that so many of them have no concept of how to behave at a live performance. The noise of eating and unwrapping of sweets, the whispering and chatter and in some cases the downright rudeness was appalling. Perhaps those teachers in charge should give lessons prior to attending in how an audience should behave, respecting not only the rest of the audience but also the players both on and behind the stage.

Andrew Kay

15 November

Theatre Royal Brighton


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