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That inspector's back again

Its political challenge and assault on realism make JB Priestley's classic thriller constantly renewable. Timothy Ramsden looks at the latest version to tour the UK

An Inspector Calls PW Productions tour

I never meant it to be realistic," J B Priestley told the director of a 1950s Malvern revival of this play. Set in 1912, it shows how members of a prosperous Midlands manufacturing family are forced to examine their part in the death of a young working-class woman.

No production has been less realistic - or more successful - than the one directed by Stephen Daldry and designed by Ian MacNeil, initially for York Theatre Royal in 1989, then reworked for the National Theatre and elsewhere over ten years. A new tour opens in Birmingham next year.

MacNeil's design is a major feature of the production's startling success. Startling is what director and designer wanted it to be. And the play keeps its political kick. The inside of a house is revealed set precariously on stilts in the context of a less affluent world.

Priestley's preoccupation with Time theories found a parallel at the National Theatre. A Nineties audience watched a 1945 play set in 1912, sitting in modern Brutalist theatre architecture tricked out with a fake Edwardian proscenium, its curtain rising to reveal a Forties soundstage. This was part of an attempt to see how far they could go and take the play with them: rejected ideas included a setting on the eve of Thatcher's second election victory, which would have placed a play from the founding of the Welfare State at the beginning of its end.

Hitchcock was another influence: the radio and telephone-box (a "Tardis") are comfortable, familiar things from which something spooky comes:

"They're concrete, therefore terrifying." Key points MacNeil recalls include Daldry's decision to place the Inspector outside the Birling family house, summoning family members from this pod-on-stilts to give evidence before us and the onstage chorus - while the maid Edna becomes gradually less deferential.

Then there's the Chorus of street witnesses, making the selfish behaviour more shocking "In the War people witnessed each other. Fronts were torn off homes, people's possessions were strewn in the street. Society changed because people wanted it to." Evacuation mixed people who'd lived apart. Hosts "were shocked to find East End children - never mind not seeing a cow - they couldn't use a knife and fork. That horrified people."

An Inspector Calls begins a six-month national tour on January 24 at Birmingham Rep, closing at Llandudno North Wales Theatre on July 19. Ful details from PW Productions Tel: 02077 347184

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