And now for something completely different. After a run of excellent musicals, the New Wimbledon Theatre is hosting a serious drama, one which has long been a staple of repertory theatre, but which underwent a radical transformation in 1992 under the direction of Stephen Daldry: An Inspector Calls. The same director is at the helm again, and the gasps of surprise that arose when the curtain went up at the National Theatre in 1992 were echoed by the audience at Wimbledon last night.
The set is truly stunning. As a thick fog dissipates, we see an amazing mansion on stilts that opens out to reveal an opulent drawing room within, while the house lights illuminate a drab expanse in front, over which street urchins scamper. The opulence and drabness mirror the contrast between wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, that this play rails against. Like the House of Usher, this house later falls – literally, with a bang.
The time is just before the First World War, and the cast are in Edwardian dress. A self-made Northern industrialist who aspires to a knighthood is having a small dinner party for his daughter and her fiancé, the scion of landed gentry, when a police inspector shatters their post-prandial good humour. He is investigating the death of a young working-class woman who committed suicide by swallowing disinfectant – an agonizing but not infrequent method resorted to by serving wenches in the Edwardian period who found themselves in an intolerable situation. As the inspector questions each member of this wealthy and privileged family, it becomes clear that each of them is implicated to some degree in the tragic death of this young woman.
Subtle it is not. Priestley had a message to convey, that concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few and not the many leads to appalling injustice. The selfishness and hypocrisy of this particular family bring retribution. They are visited with Nemesis, whose agent is the police inspector, and their house falls, spectacularly.
There is a twist at the end, a coda which, for the sake of those unfamiliar with the play, ought not to be revealed. It is not a great play; its message is too heavy-handed. But in this production it is superbly acted, while the atmospheric set (dry ice abounds) is a tour de force. And judging by the reaction of the audience, many of whom were secondary school pupils – is An Inspector Calls a set text for English A-levels? – it is a play for our time. When the bossed-about daughter of the house strikes out on her own – literally, by slapping her arrogant fiancé in the face – a loud cheer went up from the youngsters. Yes, the play resonates with the young generation of the #MeToo era.