Priestley's An Inspector Calls as compelling and as relevant as ever

An Inspector Calls. Photo by Mark Douet.
An Inspector Calls. Photo by Mark Douet.

REVIEW: An Inspector Calls, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, until September 21

An Inspector Calls was clearly a play written in fury and indignation.

JB Priestley’s brilliance is that he turns them both into a piece which is eloquent, controlled and utterly enthralling.

It’s a measure of his remarkable achievement – and the play’s enduring relevance – that it held hundreds and hundreds of students in their school parties spellbound this evening.

Their occasional applause showed the extent to which the message was hitting home.

The play depicts a smug bourgeois gathering as a self-seeking, self-satisfied factory owner celebrates his daughter’s engagement into a family which will make him even smugger and richer. A knighthood is on the horizon, he confides, ever so, ever so pleased with himself.

And then into this gathering walks one of 20th century theatre’s greatest inventions, Priestley’s Inspector – the policeman who never quite seems a policeman, the policeman who knows all the answers before he asks the questions as he lets the family, one by one, reveal their complicity in a hideous suicide.

Each in their different ways, from spite to exploitation, from callousness to self-interest, they shirked what Priestley sees as our most basic human responsibility, our duty of care to others.

Priestley’s piece in Stephen Daldry’s landmark National Theatre's production turns the screw beautifully as they fight against dawning realisation that they are jointly and individually to blame – though even then they’re just looking for the chance to ignore it.

Alasdair Buchan is impressive as Gerald Croft, a man of ghastly complacency overriding his fleeting kindness; Jeffrey Harmer oozes entitlement as the endlessly self-justifying Mr Birling; and perhaps the most interesting character within the family, Chloe Orrock is outstanding as Sheila Birling, the daughter of the household and the one quickest to understand what is happening and why – and precisely why they can’t escape it.

Deeply impressive too is Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole, ever more commanding as he gives the family sufficient rope… and yet who is he? That’s a big part of the fascination.

Daldry’s brilliant set does the rest on a night of compelling theatre, superbly delivered and more and more thought-provoking every time you see it.

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