Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Triumph Of Priestley’s Timeless Drama of Conscience
If youth is wasted on the young then let us hope that Priestley’s classic thriller, An Inspector Calls, is not, for this brilliant piece of drama – a permanent fixture on many school syllabuses - can be seen at its finest in Bradford’s Alhambra this week.
Set in 1912 Edwardian England but, interestingly, first staged in Moscow because Bradford’s famous son could not find an appropriate venue in Britain, this crushing indictment of unaccountable greed, power and social division, leaves you reeling……at least if you have seen Stephen Daldry’s 1992 version.
Until then An Inspector Calls had swung in and out of favour, tied heavily to the political climate, as it periodically told the story of the self-serving and fabulously wealthy Birlings family, and its culpability in the destruction of a less fortunate human life.
But as consumerism emerged so the popularity of Priestley’s work diminished and, in some ways, its Edwardian backdrop left the now classic text gathering dust as it was politely parked as a period whodunnit.
Then along came Daldry and slapped an incredulous public around the face with this stunning production, creating a new, harsher realism by confining its main protagonists, the Birlings family, to what looks like a surreal fairy tale house set atop a grimy, urban industrial backdrop, only accessible by a drop down iron staircase. It creates, completely, a ‘them and us’ reality.
And boy, is it powerful when seen for the first time!
We never see the ubiquitous Eva Smith, the poor unfortunate said to have been driven to suicide by the Birlings’ various actions, but she is ever-present as the spirit-like Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) slowly unpicks their arrogance, strips them bare and puts the family on trial for its part in the woman’s passing.
Brennan was beautifully paced and thoughtful as the Inspector, and his dogmatic, interrogative Scottish accent was in perfect contrast to Arthur Birling’s (Jeffrey Harmer) arrogant Northern tones, inspired, possibly, by Priestley’s Yorkshire background and the Bradford in which he would have crossed paths with many Birling type mill owner families.
The brilliance of this production is its backdrop which, in 1992, was hailed as a tour de force, and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s like the scene in Dickens’ Oliver Twist workhouse where the ‘grey like’ kids eat gruel as the fat, overfed workhouse guardians feed their faces on turkey and an array of festive foods. Equally Daldry created a similar contrast, turning, some would argue, Priestley’s work into the timeless classic that it has become, by exposing the original themes more dramatically.
If Daldry has Priestley to thank for this work, then surely Priestly has Daldry to thank for giving him a place in literary history?
Christine Kavanagh as Sybil Birling and Chloe Orrock as suitably plummy daughter Sheila Birling, were excellent whilst Alasdair Buchan as Gerald Croft, Sheila’s husband to be, created, perfectly, that feeling of the Tory Toff that we all love to hate with his plummy, self-gratifying tones.
Priestley’s play puts the entire world on trial, but this production reads the charges, takes the evidence and sends you to Hell if you do not amend your ways! A beauty!
An Inspector Calls
Until Saturday February 1st