An Inspector Calls is one of J.B. Priestley’s best-known plays, set in 1912, with the action taking place in a single night. The story revolves around the Birling family, a wealthy family living a comfortable life in the North of England. Inspector Goole arrives at their home and questions the family about the suicide of a local working-class girl, Eva Smith. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that each member of the family has had an impact on her life, contributing to her exclusion from society and ultimately, her death.
The play reflects Priestley’s strong socialist principles, and Inspector Goole, in particular, is a mouthpiece for his convictions that it is the responsibility of the wealthy in society to care for the poor. Although the play was initially a commercial success, it fell out of fashion in the 1960s, but it remains popular with amateur theatre groups and appears on the GCSE syllabus.
In 1992, Stephen Daldry directed a revival of the play which has toured ever since. This week, it is playing at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. Instead of an Edwardian dining room, the stage set was a structure mounted on hydraulics, which is opened up and reconstructed at will. The surroundings are that of a bomb site, with children scavenging and groups of the displaced and dispossessed wandering aimlessly. Although this added excitement to the play, it did not entirely work. Inspector Goole had to conduct his interrogations outside the house, which meant that the sense of the Birlings being secure and at ease in their home was lost.
The ultimate collapse of the house and its subsequent reconstruction was an effective way of showing how Goole’s revelations destroyed the family’s complacency. The way that the Birling family reacts once they believe that Goole may not be who he claims to be shows how quickly they return to their old selfish ways. Despite the elaborate set, the most impressive aspect of this production was George Rowlands’ understated portrayal of Eric’s abject misery, which was more powerful and moving than Sheila’s hysterical screeching.
The storyline is almost timeless and speaks volumes to a modern audience. However, this production feels tired. The set, whilst effective, hasn’t changed since 1992. This goes along with some of the movement within the play. Sheila’s fall after seeing Eva’s photo looks so awkward and unnatural that you are taken out of the scene. Some of the acting tries to play serious moments up to comedy, ruining the seriousness of the situation. The play is designed to be a drama, rather than a comedy and the cast’s direction seems a little mislaid at times.
Overall, the play remains a timeless reminder of the selfishness and hypocrisy of a capitalist society, especially relevant at the end of the Thatcher years when the very existence of society had been questioned. Inspector Goole’s parting words, “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish” still resonate today. The play’s message is clear: society must take care of the have-nots and that we are all responsible for each other.