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Set play: An inspector calls

At the climax of director Stephen Daldry's version of An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre, London, Inspector Goole comes to the front of the stage and warns the audience that if we will not learn that we are responsible for each other, we "will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish".

When Daldry's production of this 1946 play opened at the National Theatre in 1992, this moment seemed like an attack on Margaret Thatcher's dictum that "there is no such thing as society". Now, it feels more like a grim warning that the New Labour government must deliver on its promises.

Set in 1912, in a northern industrial town, Priestley's play shows what happens when the engagement party of Gerald Croft and Sheila Birling, daughter of a factory owner, is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole. As he asks about the suicide of Eva Smith, a working-class woman, it emerges that each member of the bourgeois family had a part in her tragic death.

But while Mr and Mrs Birling cannot admit the truth, more concerned with profit and propriety, their children, Sheila and Eric, are open to remorse and to learning the lessons of social responsibility.

Daldry's staging opens with an air-raid siren, a reminder that, although the play is set in the Edwardian era, it was written during the Second World War. Using a daring set, which plants the Birling home in a landscape of cobbled streets and bomb craters, this imaginative treatment rescues the play from its usual naturalistic interpretation and gives it a more experimental and expressionistic feel.

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  • Picture: Inspector Goole confronts the Birling family
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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