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An Inspector Calls

JB Priestley

National Theatre

Lyric Theatre, Lowry, Salford

January 10-14, 2023; 1hr 50min

Liam Brennan as the eponymous inspector in An Inspector Calls. All pics: Mark Douet
Liam Brennan as the eponymous inspector in An Inspector Calls. All pics: Mark Douet

A great piece of theatre will often give us a new perspective or idea. Sometimes, we take away only what we have brought to the show. Occasionally the experience of those around us is as important as our own.

So it was at the opening night of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at the Lowry.

The brief Salford stop on the most recent (of many) tours of the lauded 1992 National Theatre production opened on a sold-out auditorium full of of school students.

As air raid sirens rang out, their ominous and anachronistic blasting competed with hundreds of kids chatting and munching and playing and being young. If it was a competition, though, the drama won.

Within minutes, a hush descended that largely remained for the entire running time. Largely, that is, apart from unprompted gasps and cheers at the twists, turns and political messages contained within the classic thriller.

It was a reminder that cliched or well-trodden paths only seem so to those who have walked them previously. An important reminder because, just as Priestley’s play fell out of fashion in the 1960s, so director Stephen Daldry’s production has slipped from the trendy consciousness somewhat. The dramatic devices could seem old hat to jaded eyes, but they remain powerful – and the play is still scarily relevant.

A closed-off Edwardian drawing room, literally removed and looking down upon the audience and society, is hosting an engagement party. The odious Birlings of fictitious mill town Brumley are about to have their pre-war comfort destroyed by the arrival of Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan).

Goole isn’t here to celebrate the engagement of Birling offspring Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to her equally privileged beau Gerald Croft (Simon Cotton). Instead, he appears to be investigating the circumstances that led to the tragic suicide of a young woman.

The investigation isn’t going to be swift and painless. As Goole looks at "one person and one line of inquiry at a time", it becomes clear they all have secrets to hide and painful questions to answer. But will they face justice?

Half of the success of this show is in the writing. Priestley’s themes of privilege, corrupting power, justified labour struggles, the need for community and the humbling of war are viscerally prescient. His dialogue and dramatic construction are so beautifully simple that the lines and plot can progress at pace without confusion or, in the words of Inspector Goole, muddle.

The other half of the success is in the direction and delivery. Daldry made this production the thriller it is. The Birling’s world and their dolls' house home come crashing down in a manner more befitting a post-modern, naturalistic production.

This is all aided by Stephen Warbeck’s stunning soundscape and the eerie design and atmospheric lighting from Ian MacNeil and Rick Fisher.

The cast members are largely playing archetypes and the performances, probably through no fault of the actors themselves, verge on caricature. The line delivery, however, is magnificent, offering the pointed accusation and anger that tired repertory revivals of the work lacked.

An Inspector Calls is a great piece of theatre. Perhaps it takes a young, or willing, audience to realise just how great.

Info and tickets here


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