Arts & Culture

12th February 2020

Review: ‘An Inspector Calls’- People In Doll Houses…

Self-satisfaction, smokiness, and more plate-smashing than the average Greek wedding, as director Stephen Daldry proves himself master of the metaphorical staging in adapting J.B. Priestley’s classic play.

Ring-a-ding ding, Birlings! There’s someone at the door. An Inspector’s called, come to inform you that a young woman’s just died on her way to the infirmary, and to gradually implicate you all in her death, via a plotline worthy of intense scrutiny by 15- to 16-year-olds. (Is the Inspector named ‘Goole’ because it’s a fishing village, and he’s fishing for information? Er, probably not…) It transpires the poor Eva Smith, alias Daisy Renton/Mrs. Birling, has faced a series of unfortunate events: strike trouble at t’mill (fired), trouble at Milward’s Department Store (also fired), followed by a steady descent into sordidness, soliciting, and eventual suicide.

The Inspector, all the while, is keen to underline that it’s less a ‘whodunit’ than a ‘who-didn’t-do-it,’ with each family member (more or less directly) responsible for Eva-Daisy Smith-Renton-Birling’s demise. All of which raises some pertinent questions. Will any of the pompous, hypocritical Birlings ever admit to their guilt? Will the (decidedly spectral) Inspector ever succeed in alerting them to the error of their ways? Will that little ragamuffin kid ever stop playing with the on-stage curtain?

For J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is a play that holds three time zones in thrall, an aspect accentuated by Stephen Daldry’s adaptation. There’s the Mary Poppins-esque, pre-W.W.I play-time of the narrative setting, the 1945 playwright-time, as Priestley penned a drama for a society sobered by the realities of two mass, armed conflicts, and 2020 audience-time, as the action unfolds on stage before us.

Throughout, Daldry conflates the two, muddling the play’s Edwardian society with a post-Blitz, Georgian one. Yep, there’s some ‘frolicsome games of time and metaphysics’ worthy of an episode of Doctor Who (aha – the telephone box!). There’s an ensemble of landgirls and G.I. Joes. Wireless music warbles ominously as background. There’s an air raid siren to begin as a tank top-wearing, curtain-twitching urchin scuttles on-stage to reveal the set.

Mind the (Birling) Gap!: A stratified society is suggested through a stratified set design.

And what a set it is! Not to denigrate the cast’s acting abilities (Christine Kavanagh, especially, makes an excellent showing as the haughty matriarch Mrs. Birling, with more than a touch of Miranda’s mother), yet the set is the show’s biggest selling point, its piece de resistance.

On the upper level there’s what is essentially a gargantuan dolls’ house, complete with floral-patterned wallpaper, grandfather clock and a wall mosaiced with framed photographs. On the lower, surrounding this cake wodge of a cornerhouse, all is dystopian, industrial decay: rusted furniture and warped metal, presided over by a preternaturally large, Tumnus-style streetlight and vandalised telephone box. All in all, an elaborate set that would make a worthy winner of the Turner prize. Meanwhile, its intentions are clear. It’s highly symbolic: the bourgeois Birlings, in the little bubble their wealth has afforded them, above; the lowly masses (their exploited workforce) below. But reality bites back. As their eyes are opened, courtesy of Inspector Goole, to the injustices of the British class-based system, so too is their dolls’ house mansion, its walls swinging open on their hinges.

When, during an incendiary, seat-jumper of a finale, the crockery on their immaculately laid table comes crashing down from on high, it echoes the bursting of their self-satisfied money-bubble: their former life has quite literally come tumbling down around their ears. An it is not for want of a better set designer that the hands of the grandfather clock remain fixed throughout: eight past ten appears to be their time of reckoning, and time more than metaphorically stands still for the family as their many, many errors of judgement are revealed to all. Not least of which are the frequent, hypocritical statements made by both Birling parents. People in glass/doll houses shouldn’t throw stones…

My what-I-call charity work: Christine Kavanagh channels Penny in her role as Mrs. Birling.

It is Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) who ensures their house is well and truly shattered by the close of the production. In an adaptation that is almost line-by-line faithful, the one concession to circumstance is Goole’s marked Scottish accent, something not stipulated by the original play. It’s nothing but beneficial, the accent resonant with the ghosts of a host of other Scottish super-sleuths: think Ian Rankin’s Rebus, the inspectors of television’s Taggart, Shetland, or Deadwater Fell, or David Tennant’s award-winning Glasweigan gumshoe Alec Hardy in Broadchurch. Something in the (Highland spring) water up north must make for an excellent case-cracker.

Showing his stripes: Liam Brennan (plus telephone box) as the titular inspector.

Just what kind of a criminal catcher is our Mister Goole, though? It’s a question posited by Priestley’s play- not least because of his spectrally unsubtle moniker (Goole = ghoul?) – one addressed by this adaptation. Through clever costuming, it’s pretty clear he does come from the future. His pin-striped suit, coupled with a trilby hat n’ mac combo, are classic forties attire, while the Birlings remain in bow-ties and bustles.

Costume is integral to, and revealing of, character. Is it to draw attention to apparel that Goole effects a gradual stripping throughout? Perhaps, it doesn’t make it any less disconcerting, though. (Magic Mike, you haven’t met your match.) The same technique is used for the character of Sheila (Chloe Orrock), who winds up shivering in her undergarments as the play reaches its climax. I think the removal of all her bows and ribbons was meant to symbolise her eschewing all pretensions, though it looked a tad odd, more burlesque than Birling.

G’day Sheila (Chloe Orrock)? After being implicated in a suicide, not particularly.

And presiding over the whole performance? Not the eyes of Eckleburg, but of Edna, maid and general dogsbody. Actress Emma Cater stayed on stage throughout, as accusations turned to admissions, ballgowns turned to busques, and serving platters turned to smithereens. Ignored, treated as inconsequential, Edna was witness to all. Testament to the Inspector’s proclamation that:

‘One Eva Smith is gone, but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us.’

They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Thankfully, despite the overexuberance of the special effects team causing an opening night evacuation, this was not the case. Pretty apt, though, for as professional doom-monger Goole predicts at play’s end, if we do not learn from the lessons of the past, we will be corrected in ‘fire […] and anguish.’ Ergo, less fake stage smoke in future, please, production team.

Following a five-night run at Liverpool’s Playhouse, The National Theatre production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, adapted by Stephen Daldry, is now touring the country. For info & tickets, visit