Ever since dramatist J B Priestley’s classic mystery thriller AN INSPECTOR CALLS found its way onto the stage it has remained a firm favourite. While previous productions (including screen adaptations) had been characterized by faithful reconstructions of an Edwardian drawing room, designer Iain McNeill’s ground-breaking and audacious 1992 set boldly shattered any expectations potential theatregoers may have had up until then. But does it do the story any favours?

The play takes place during one night in the spring of 1912 and concerns a prosperous (and very snobbish) upper middle-class family, the Birlings (husband, wife, son and daughter). The family live in a cosy home in the fictional town of Brumley – an industrial place in the north Midlands. Just as the Birlings gather around the generously laid out dinner table to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) to Gerald Croft (Alasdair Buchan) – the son of a rival magnate – housekeeper Edna (Linda Beckett) announces an unexpected visitor: a certain Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) has arrived to ‘interrogate’ the Birling family following the suicide of a young girl called Eva Smith. Initially baffled as to what the tragic girl’s death should have to do with the Birlings, the mysterious Inspector slowly lets the cat out of the bag… in fact, quite a few cats as it turns out!
A diary was found among the dead girl’s meagre possessions and in it the name ‘Birling’ was mentioned time and time again. As the evening progresses, each family member comes to admit their part in Eva Smith’s death.

Father Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer), a wealthy factory owner and local politician, had fired Eva, who used to be one of his factory workers, after the girl had the cheek to demand higher wages and for her involvement in a potential workers’ strike. Next up is daughter Sheila – a spoiled little rich Missy who finally admits that she too was (in parts) responsible for Eva’s demise when – after having been fired from Mr. Birling’s factory – she had found employment in a department store. It was here that the vain and self-centered Sheila, in search for an outfit, had a run-in with Eva for no other reason than jealousy over Eva’s pretty looks though she succeeded in getting Eva sacked after complaining about her apparent ‘impertinence’.

The two young men don’t fare much better: while Gerald Croft admits to have had Eva installed as his mistress after having met her in the local Palace Bar (by which time Eva had began to call herself Daisy Renton) he later cut her off as abruptly as he had helped her. Upon hearing all this, Sheila chucks her engagement ring at Gerald while mother Sybil (Christine Kavanagh) is particularly horrified that her future son-in-law was involved with a working class ‘doxy’. It get’s worse when son Eric (Ryan Saunders) – a bit of a Jack-the-lad and drunkard, managed to get Daisy/Eva pregnant after he too made her acquaintance in the Palace Bar. Initially supporting her and the child via stolen funds from his father’s business, Eva eventually refused to live on stolen money. Eric’s confession only worsens the already strained relation to his parents while Sheila finds her brother’s honesty admirable. Last but not least it’s up to Sybil to confess but that’s easier said than done for she is an arrogant and cold-hearted woman who considers the Inspector’s questions ‘impertinent’… Eventually she too has to admit that she knew the dead girl – namely when, pregnant and in despair, she had turned to Sybil (head of a women’s charity) for help. Sybil, in her arrogance and in the belief that Eva/Daisy acted ‘way above her station’ and is a liar, convinced the committee to turn down the fallen girl’s application for help. Instead she suggested to Eva/Daisy to seek help from the father of the unborn child, very obviously oblivious to the fact that the father is her own son Eric!
After having succeeded in extracting confessions from each family member the Inspector concludes that while none of them are guilty in a direct sense, they all contributed to the girl’s death through their thoughtless actions - actions which have consequences! Inspector Goole then vanishes as mysteriously as he appeared.

After a mighty shouting much between the Birlings, Gerald re-appears and comes up with some clever deductions: for example the photo which Goole showed to the various family members may have been of a different girl. The Birlings’ sense momentarily relief. To clarify this, Gerald makes a phone call to the local police station and it emerges that Inspector Goole is not known to the police force, just as their has been no report of a suicide victim at the infirmary… Just as the Gerald, and Mr. and Mrs. Birling celebrate being let off the hook – especially the morally bankrupt Arthur Birling whose only concern is his social status and the reputation of his family, the phone suddenly rings… with the police at the other end of the line informing Mr. Birling about the suicide of a young girl and that an inspector is on his way to ask some questions…

Priestley’s critique of social class divide is of course timeless and little has changed in attitude. One only has to look at the increasing amount of food banks to realise that the notorious British class divide is alive and well – and not just in re-runs of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ or ‘Downton Abbey’! With this social critique in mind, director Stephen Daldry and designer Iain McNeill came up with a ‘revolutionary concept’ in which the Birling’s classical Edwardian home is scrapped and replaced with a ‘surreal and contorted fairy-tale style house’ which represents the Birling’s smug and cosy comfort zone, literally ripped open (and thus their world exposed) with the arrival of the ghostly Inspector Goole. As the interrogation comes to an end the house temporarily collapses – symbolic of course as it represents the collapse of their sheltered existence. And for this reviewer there is just a little too much ‘symbolism’ in this production – not just the collapsing house but instead of a telephone in the house we have a phone box on the street below that looks like it has been ‘blitzed’. Poverty-stricken children creep up and even soldiers in uniform – a nod to Inspector Goole’s stark warning that all actions have consequences and “If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish” (an illusion to the then impending war). Likewise, the costumes make for a challenging spectacle too for while the ladies of the Birling family are dressed in Victorian attire (as opposed to Edwardian garb) – symbolising the collapse of Victorian attitudes and morals – other characters on stage seem to come from different eras altogether. And why would the wealthy Birling family answer phone calls from a shattered phone box in the street? And why would they sit outside their home on cobblestones – draped in military-style blankets – towards the end of the play? What does it hint at? Sometimes one can be too ambitious with regards to allusions and symbolism…

While the performances are satisfactory, Liam Brennan’s ‘Inspector Goole’ – sporting a Scots accent - almost feels too human at times and lacks the mysterious, otherworldly quality so exemplified by fellow Scot Alastair Sim in the 1954 movie version.

AN INSPECTOR CALLS runs until Saturday 12th Oct. Search tickets below.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton