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Middle class mayhem

PUBLISHED: 16:27 10 February 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 16 August 2010

SPARRING: Sybil (Sandra Duncan; Arthur (David Roper) and Nicholas Woodeson, Inspector Goole.

SPARRING: Sybil (Sandra Duncan; Arthur (David Roper) and Nicholas Woodeson, Inspector Goole.

No man is an island wrote an Elizabethan poet and JB Priestley took this to heart when he penned An Inspector Calls which is a psychological thriller disguised as polemic, writes Edward Martyn. The idea of teaching someone a lesson is not new in thea

No man is an island' wrote an Elizabethan poet and JB Priestley took this to heart when he penned An Inspector Calls which is a psychological thriller disguised as polemic, writes Edward Martyn.

The idea of 'teaching someone a lesson' is not new in theatre, Shakespeare used Malvolio as a whipping boy in Twelfth Night to puncture the arrogance and pomposity of a servant given too much power.

Priestley meanwhile, has gone for the middle classes in general, people who are self-motivated, self-made, self-aware and self-satisfied. We meet them at supper in their cosy Edwardian family home complete with dowdy servant woman Edna (played on the night I saw it by understudy Mary Duddy)

The father, Arthur Birling (David Roper) is presiding over an engagement party for his daughter Sheila (Marianne Oldham) and her eminently suitable fiancé Gerald Croft (Timothy Watson). This self-congratulatory soiree is brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of an inspector Goole to investigate the untimely death of a young woman connected to the family business. The inspector's name should perhaps give us a clue that all is not as it seems, but the Birlings are too obsessed with outward appearances to question the real reason for this nocturnal visitation.

Stephen Daldry ( director of Billy Elliot) has taken this dusty old play, beloved of provincial rep companies and turned it into a cutting edge social commentary with a timeless quality.

Ian MacNeil has designed a quaint dolls-house for the family, barely big enough for the cast to stand up in, imparting a surreal air to the proceedings.

The subsequent interrogation of the family by 'Inspector' Goole is carried out in the cobbled street outside, where succeeding family members are quizzed about their involvement in the tragic death of a pregnant and friendless young woman.

Mother, Sybil (brilliantly played by Sandra Duncan) is one of those to go under the microscope. She twists and turns in her attempts to justify the cruel treatment of the unfortunate woman by quoting time-honoured maxims such as "She brought it on herself."

Pauses are used to maximum effect as the victims of this interrogation try to think of some way of dressing-up their shoddy behaviour, but the more they cast around for excuses, the bigger the hole they dig. The revelation that the fiancé has been keeping the woman as a covert mistress is masterfully and painfully confessed by Timothy Watson to predictably haughty comments of the deceived Sheila, until it is revealed that she too had a hand in the woman's downfall.

Daldry extracts every ounce of middle-class angst from this 1912 dysfunctional ménage but he also manages to garner the black humour present in the situation and the cast rise to the occasion with a poise and commitment which breathes new life into this tired old classic.

Nicholas Woodeson is functional as the inspector but lacks the other-worldly quality of the actual ghoul he undoubtedly is. David Roper is suitably blustering as the factory owning father quite out of his depth in this emotional volcano which has erupted in the middle of his successful life. The set has its own part to play as it staggers and collapses under the weight of all these revelations. The message that Priestley wants to impart is that caring socialism is the only answer to modern day problems (This was written in 1945) but John Donne summed it up best 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Edward Martyn

* An Inspector Calls is at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road. Box office: 0844 579 1940. It runs until March 13.

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