An Inspector Calls returns once again to the London stage. A whodunnit in which a police officer investigates the causes of a young woman’s suicide should be an excoriating critique of the indifference of the upper-middle classes, but here it is repackaged as cosy entertainment for the descendants of the very people it originally sought to tear down.
This version is a revival of Stephen Daldry’s (Billy Elliot) 1992 National Theatre production of JB Priestley’s play, and while it’s full of inventive flourishes, it’s chronically shy of broaching the play’s more unpalatable elements.
Indeed, the blatant, simplistic moral didacticism will still send shivers down the spines of anyone who first encountered the play as a set text for GSCE English. The central theme is responsibility and the Inspector breaks down each of the other major characters in turn, as he accuses them of creating the conditions that drove a girl to kill herself.
But the acting is uniformly good, which makes it a remarkably easy watch, the theatrical equivalent of sitting on a couch with tea and biscuits watching Downton Abbey.
Liam Brennan brings depth and affection to the role of the Inspector, peeling away the pretentions and self-delusions of the other characters, and there are great performances from Barbara Marten, imperious – almost Thatcher-like – in the role of the matriarch, and Carmela Corbett, who effectively conveys her character’s dawning understanding of her own culpability.
The impressive set looks like something from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s post-apocalyptic Delicatessen – a house on stilts in what might be a war-ravaged urban wasteland. It’s punctuated with dancing children and blasts of music from an old valve radio that sits to one side of the stage. In the early 90s this may have seemed like a fresh new take on a classic, but now it seems more like a safe bet, so widely has the aesthetic been adopted.
On a more fundamental level, while the text is widely considered a classic, it’s let down by a final act that veers, quite unnecessarily, into the supernatural. This leaves the audience not pondering questions of the extent to which we are collectively and severally liable for the lives and decisions of others, but about whether the character who raises those issues is a ghost or an angel or some other extraneous nonsense.
An Inspector Calls lacks the depth of ambition to be anything beyond a fun night out.