Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Re-opened 27 September, 2001

When last I saw Stephen Daldry and Ian MacNeil's visionary reinvention of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls a year or so ago at the Garrick Theatre, it seemed to me that performances had grown sadly coarsened and devoid of nuance since its unveiling at the National Theatre in 1992. After a five-month hiatus it has now reopened at a new venue, the Playhouse, having been tightened up again so that theory and practice are once more in potent alignment.

As Inspector Goole, Niall Buggy is aided by Rick Fisher's stark lighting to transcend his baby face and become a figure of power and threat to the ease of the Birling family, as he reveals to them how they one by one unthinkingly contributed to a young woman's slide towards suicide. Edward Beer as industrialist Mr Birling barks tyrannically but to no avail in the face of the Inspector's surgical dissection; Diane Fletcher as his wife has an Olympian, glacial serenity such that her composed patrician smile is scarcely disturbed until she finds herself thoroughly ensnared. As Goole's more promising converts, the Birlings' children Sheila and Eric, Emma Gregory portrays sensitivity and acuity a world away from her parents, though Andrew Leonard in his West End debut overplays Eric's drunken hysteria.

The director/designer team's vision encompasses more than the visual aspect, in which an Edwardian doll's house standing a mid a bomb site is first surrounded by the young dispossessed whom the inhabitants have casually exploited and then literally tumbles to the ground. It is not simply that these children and other onlookers are physically outsiders or representatives of a time beyond the 1912 in which the Birling circle live; even the style of acting of the accused gentry is declamatory and melodramatic, and thus deliberately out of time with the new world which Inspector Goole and his mute companions herald.

Seeing the play just now, though, what struck me most forcefully was the one thing which it is almost impossible to say without seeming both callous and heretical, and yet which cannot in conscience remain unremarked. An Inspector Calls was written to encapsulate the spirit of 1945, in which visions of social responsibility were undergoing a sea-change in Britain. However, current world events place us once more in a moment in which, as in the play, complacent capitalism is uncomprehendingly outraged when external forces threaten its accustomed perspective, when even trying to understand the "other" with the best intentions is vilified as treachery. Inspector Goole's warning against mental isolationism once more strikes to the marrow: "We don't live alone... We are responsible for each other... If men will not learn that lesson, then there will be choices in fire and blood and anguish."

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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