The packed 1,700 seat Lyric Theatre thrummed with anticipation, the heady mix of Lynx Africa and Marc Jacobs ‘Daisy’ lay heavy in the air. The cause of this unusual theatrical aroma was the opening night of ‘An Inspector Calls’, now firmly established on the GCSE syllabus, annually affording delighted English teachers the opportunity to hear what Year Eleven make of JB Priestley’s timeless morality piece.

The decision to include the play within the examination curriculum has undoubtedly been heavily influenced by the groundbreaking production we are presented with tonight. Until the late 1980’s, ‘An Inspector Calls’ was a staple of repertory companies all over England, presented in a comfortable Edwardian drawing room setting just prior to the outbreak of the Great War. However in 1993, Director Stephen Daldry saw the radical message lying suffocating underneath the chintz and reinterpreted it for the National Theatre, effectively killing more conservative productions in the process. Not only was he able to draw out the anger and strong socialist philosophy of the author for a modern audience, but the innovative staging and set design added much to the central tenets of the play.

We open with a heavy red velvet curtain draped across the stage and a boy in 1940’s school wear fiddling with a Bakelite radio which eventually tunes to dissonant violins, foreshadowing the events to come. The curtain rises to reveal prosperous local mill owner Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer), gathered with his family to celebrate the engagement of his daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to Gerald Croft (Alasdair Buchan), the son of a another local factory owner. Designer Ian MacNeil sets the opening within a large surrealist dolls house in centre stage, surrounded by the grim wet Edwardian streets outside. The house is close fronted and the audience only glimpse the action and hear dialogue through the windows, startlingly representing the closed privileged world of the Birling family and their class. The house opens to reveal the interior upon the arrival of Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), informing the occupants that a local girl has recently committed suicide and he ‘has a few questions to ask...’

For those fortunate enough not to know what happens in the ensuing 90 minutes, I won’t spoil the plot, suffice to say it’s still deliciously satisfying and shocking. There were plenty of people in the ‘Netflix generation’ audience this evening who gasped at the denouement, not bad for a play that first premiered in 1946. I’ve been lucky enough to see this production on 3/4 occasions, including the original 1993 cast with Kenneth Cranham as the Inspector and it never disappoints. Tonight, Brennan employs his Scottish burr to excellent effect as the mysterious Inspector, allowing the real anger at the self satisfied Birling family to build to an incendiary climax. Harmer expertly deflates the pompous Arthur steadily throughout, shattering his individualist world view as he realises his part in the demise of the faceless victim. Christine Kavanagh is excellent as the haughty, imperious Mrs Birling the blindest of them all, condemning her own son Eric (Ryan Saunders) thanks to her prejudice and arrogance. I was particularly pleased to see Orrock and Saunders adding a layer of cruelty and nastiness to their early characterisations, making their partial redemption by the close much more rounded and satisfying.

Above all, this is a triumph of design and direction that allows the anger and hope of the writing to capture an audience. First staged in 1945 following the of horrors of war, it was originally seen as a hopeful promise that society was bound together in a common endeavour, exemplified by the postwar Labour government of Attlee. Viewed from a distance of nearly 75 years later, it pointedly shows that the Birling family and their attitudes are still as prevalent as ever. Inspector Goole still has a job to do.

Until 18th January 2020:

North West End UK verdict: A timeless classic made relevant and modern with superb design and direction.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 14th January 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★