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Oxford Playhouse

An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s famous allegorical play about class, socialism and social responsibility, seems more appropriate than ever. And Stephen Daldry’s innovative, award winning production for the National Theatre, that is now 27 years old, comes across as surprisingly relevant today as it did all those years ago when it was first performed. Written in the era of the well-made and well-upholstered production, Ian MacNeil’s splendidly evocative and surprising set enables one to imagine not only the stuffy, Edwardian background of the wealthy Birling Family but also the vividly bleak post-industrial world that supports and surrounds them.

Set in the year 1912, the text plays with the conventions of Victorian melodrama and the police thriller. And just when it looks as if this is, indeed, the genre of the play we are watching, it wittily and then disturbingly subverts our expectations. There is also an added spooky element to be found in the conclusion…

The cast of this touring revival gives excellent value: managing simultaneously to create intriguing, recognizable characters whilst conveying a sense of artifice. Liam Brennan carries the story along with his impersonation of the mysterious, captivating and confrontational Inspector Goole who calls to confront a wealthy group of people about the suicide of a working class shop girl. The play at first seems to work almost predictably, once you understand the set-up, structured as a step-by-step unfolding of the relationship of each of the rich characters with the dead girl and the revelation of the contribution each has made to her death. It is transparently clear after a while that the girl is also emblematic of the exploited of this world and that each of the Birlings and the fiancé of Sheila Birling, Gerald Croft, are emblematic of various kinds of indifference and exploitations that betray and ultimately destroy masses of the people. The play progresses like an Agatha Christie thriller much of the time. But, when the Inspector leaves, it gives way to reveal the true meaning of the text in a kind of startling epilogue. Ultimately this is a strong and thought-provoking play and it is interesting to note that it was conceived and written during World War II and first performed at the end of that war when people were looking to realise their idealism and create a fairer new world after all the destruction and sacrifice of the previous years. In many ways, this is a pessimistic play and the additional characters introduced by Daldry emphasize the lesson of the play which I take to be: will we or they ever learn?

No one in the cast can be singled out because the ensemble work is so fine, and yet each individual makes an impression, with Liam Brennan’s Inspector as the pivotal characterization. And you too, at the end, will wonder – who was he really? Jeffrey Harmer and Christine Kavanagh as the elder Birlings create believable characterizations that become forcefully disturbing in the final sequence. Chloe Orrock makes something both memorable and sympathetic of Sheila; Ryan Saunders gives us a weak, vulnerable and confused Eric Birling; while Alasdair Buchan does well as Sheila’s bluff fiancé, the smug Gerald Croft and Linda Becket, virtually without speech, makes an impression as the maid, Edna.

This production introduces supernumeraries that drive home the subtext and the allegorical purpose of the play. The visually intriguing design is by Ian MacNeill and Stephen Warbeck has composed the haunting and utterly suitable music. This is a justly famous production and the cast does the conception of the director Stephen Daldry proud. If the tour comes near you, try to see it. If you have already seen it in one of its past incarnations, then you might want to see it again. This touring company pretty much recreates the legendary Daldry version of An Inspector Calls.

  • Drama
  • By J B Priestley
  • Directed by Stephen Daldry. Produced by Iain Gillie
  • Music by Stephen Warbeck
  • Cast Includes: Liam Brennan, Chrstine |Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Harmer, Lastair Buchan, Chloe Orrock, Ryan Saunders, linda Becket
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • Touring until 23rd May 2020

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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