Judging by the reaction I experienced in the stalls of a busy New Wimbledon Theatre, this 30 year old production of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls has not only stayed politically and socially relevant, it has kept its power to surprise and delight new audiences. As a quick aside, can we please stop the nonsense of demanding hushed respectful silence in our theatres? Hearing school parties and youngsters with their parents laugh, gasp and cheer as the plot’s dramatic moments revealed themselves was far from an irritation, it was a joy.
The kids particularly responded to the daughter of the story’s central Birling family, Sheila. A reflection of new gender norms, perhaps? Demureness and playing second fiddle finally forgotten. It is certainly a role Evlyne Oyedokun throws herself into with contemporary energy and skill. Her performance lands so well it is her character, right from a tongue-in-cheek fairy tale princess entrance, that inhabits and drives the moral machinations of the play.
Liam Brennan makes for a very human, likeable Inspector Goole. The name implies a haunting, but Brennan’s take is more engaged with earthly matters. His Goole enjoys his grand inquisitor tasks and finds lighter moments as he interrogates the Birlings about the death he arrives to report. He’s had practice, having previously played the role in the West End. If Brennan keeps things grounded, Simon Cotton as Sheila’s thwarted lover, and George Rowlands as her younger brother are asked to be more melodramatic. There’s a mania to their stories and lots of shouting, but both actors acquit themselves well. Their villainy and comeuppances, even if they feel slightly broad, are key to everyone’s enjoyment.
An Inspector Calls is an unashamedly socialist play attacking self-interest, industry and commerce. It comes from 1945 and a time when such political opinions were, dare I say, forged with more intellectual rigour than today. This is no soundbite or hastily posted virtue-signalling. Priestley takes three acts to painstakingly build his compelling case for community and compassion over profit. Yes, it’s didactic and polemical but – crikey – that feels just what we need right now. It made me wonder who the great voices of the Left are in 2022. Depressingly, I couldn’t immediately answer.
Priestley’s politics aren’t simply told to us in this beautifully designed show. They are physically and directly referenced by a magical set. It is wonderfully inventive and lifts the text right off the page. To say more is probably a spoiler but northern rainy streets and oppressive middle class homes have rarely been so satisfying. Designer Ian MacNeil’s work was rightly celebrated in the initial 1992 National Theatre production. It can’t be the easiest thing to tour around the country with today, but it’s categorically worth all the effort.
This An Inspector Calls is officially a record breaker. It is the show’s 25th tour in all and, to date, it has been seen by 5 million theatregoers worldwide. The reason? It is unarguably very, very good. Since first directing it, Stephen Daldry has become a familiar star of stage and screen with The Hours, Billy Elliot and The Crown under his belt. It is not clear how much he has actually done here. I suspect credited Associate Director, Charlotte Peters is more responsible for keeping the show on the road these days. She deserves warm applause for doing so. This is another feather in the cap of the New Wimbledon Theatre. They seem to keep making the right choices and their audiences look set to grow in size and enthusiasm.
Written by: JB Priestley
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Associate Director: Charlotte Peters
Design by: Ian MacNeil
Music by: Stephen Warbeck
Sound by : Sebastian Frost
Executive Produced by: Iain Gillie
An Inspector Calls plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 17 September before continuing its tour, which is currently booked through to May 2023. Further information and full tour dates can be found here.