An Inspector Calls

Oct 9 2019 | By More

★★★★☆    Worryingly compelling

King’s Theatre: Tue 8 –Sat 12 Sept 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

The revival of a much-garlanded take on J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at the King’s is wonderfully staged, relevant and more than a little troubling.

Huge numbers have seen Stephen Daldry’s production since it debuted at the UK National Theatre in 1992 and rescued the play from a reputation as a staid rep warhorse, but it is still ridiculously fresh. The play bears repetition more than most; if some of it is a shade preachy, it is superbly constructed, horribly clever and surprisingly subtle.

Liam Brennan. Pic: Tristram Kenton

And yes, this is the version with that house on stilts. Ian MacNeil’s design is still a thing of wonder and lends itself to a coup de théâtre that never gets old – one that, like a great deal else about the production, works best from the stalls but is pretty good from anywhere. Daldry’s staging, collapsing the 1912 setting of the play into its 1945 date of composition, remains an intellectually rigorous and visually intriguing take on the play.

Priestley’s tricksy story of the Inspector who visits the complacently partying Birling family to ask them about the painful death of young Eva Smith – to which they are all connected – remains horribly pertinent. Indeed, it is even more sadly tragic now than it was when this incarnation won deserved awards.


While there are some things about it that are starting to creak, the portrayal of the mysterious Inspector Goole is not one of them. From the moment Liam Brennan (whose demob suit marks him out as one of the 40s cohort) starts his inquisition, he dominates proceedings.

Liam Brennan and the cast. Pic: Tristram Kenton

Brennan has done some very fine things in the past, but probably nothing to match this. It is entirely fitting that at times he speaks with an authoritative, almost oracular tone, while at other moments the lines appear to be occurring to him as he speaks them. It is a magnificent performance, humorous, sympathetic and yet somehow otherworldly, and even involving some carefully judged breaking of the fourth wall. If you didn’t know better you would swear the role had been written specifically for him.

This does mean that when he is not onstage it becomes somewhat less effective. However, Christine Kavanagh’s defiantly high-handed Mrs Birling is suitably revolting, while Chloe Orrock’s Sheila is interestingly multi-faceted, with the character genuinely appearing to grow.

Some of the non-realistic, almost expressionistic elements of the production continue to compel. These undoubtedly include that set, Rick Fraser’s spooky lighting, the assorted urchins, the moving of the maid Edna (the tremendous Linda Beckett) to a spatially and morally central position, and the borrowing of the hair-raising stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Others do not wear so well.


Jeffrey Harmer’s Mr Birling is too much of a blustering blowhard, while Ryan Saunders (Eric Birling) and Alasdair Buchan (Sheila’s fiancé Gerald) are also a touch on the broad side. The performances are all effective, but the opening and closing scenes now approach cackling melodrama.

Nevertheless, it is all incredibly involving, meaning that for once that a no-interval production never feels too long.

Christine Kavanagh Jeff Harmer and Chloe Orrock. Pic: Tristram Kenton

What is most striking is the way the Inspector’s parting monologue – the unavoidable heart of proceedings, that has been done as a defiant call to action – comes from a position of despair. Like everything else Brennan does here, it is quite brilliant, but it is noticeable how the concerns about responsibility and co-operation Priestley was addressing as the world recovered from war have shifted beneath our feet.

Notions of community, of treating any less fortunate than ourselves with simple humanity rather than blaming them, or indeed the whole idea that public life and public discourse could be an attempt to locate and promote our better selves – these are just more things we have long since stacked on the bonfire. And if (as seems entirely plausible) the Birlings are already in a living purgatory, this ever-magnetic production reminds us we have been hell-bent on joining them there.

Running time 1 hour 50 minutes (no interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 8 – Saturday 12 October 2019
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets:

An Inspector Calls on tour:
8 – 12 Oct 2019 Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
15 – 19 Oct 2019 Oxford
Oxford Playhouse
01865 305305 Book online
22 – 26 Oct 2019 Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
5 – 9 Nov 2019 Malvern
Malvern Theatres
01684 892277 Book online
12 – 16 Nov 2019 Birmingham
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
0121 236 4455 Book online
19 – 23 Nov 2019 Buxton
Buxton Opera House
01298 72190 Book online
26 – 30 Nov 2019 Wimbledon, London
New Wimbledon Theatre
0844 871 7646 Book online
Tour continues 2020:
14 – 18 Jan 2020 Salford
The Lowry
0343 208 6000 Book online
21 – 25 Jan 2020 Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes Theatre
0844 871 7652 Book online
29 Jan – 1 Feb 2020 Bradford
Bradford Theatres
01274 432000 Book online
4 – 8 Feb 2020 Liverpool
Liverpool Playhouse Theatre
0844 871 3017 Book online
11 – 15 Feb 2020 Nottingham
Theatre Royal Nottingham
0115 989 5555 Book online
25 – 29 Feb 2020 Brighton
Theatre Royal
0844 8717650 Book online
3 – 7 March 2020 Plymouth
Theatre Royal
01752 267 222 Book online
10 – 14 March 2020 Cardiff
Cardiff New Theatre
029 2087 8889 Book online
17 – 21 March 2020 Cambridge
Cambridge Arts Theatre
01223 503333 Book online
24 – 28 March 2020 Glasgow
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7647 Book online
31 March – 4 April 2020 Guildford
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
01483 44 00 00 Book online
14 – 18 April 2020 Sheffield
0114 249 6000 Book online
21 – 25 April 2020 Sunderland
Sunderland Empire
0844 871 3022 Book online
28 April – 2 May 2020 Coventry
Belgrade Theatre
024 7655 3055 Book online
5 – 9 May 2020 Dublin
Gaiety Theatre
0818 719 388 Book online
12 – 16 May 2020 Dartford
The Orchard Theatre
01322 220000 Book online
19 – 23 May 2020 Leicester
0116 242 3595 Book online


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Comments (4)

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  1. I’d love to see it!

  2. Mike Daviot says:

    While a huge admirer of Hugh’s writing and often in agreement with him, I have to disagree on many key points with this review. The good aspects of what I saw on Tuesday night were almost entirely to do with the brilliance – and resilience – of Priestley’s play, while the bad were attributable to a very heavy-handed, overblown, melodramatic production which forced coarse-grained acting on the cast. Priestley wrote a subtle and sinister play; this was a crude, clumsy, obvious production. The closest comparison I can think of is the gaping void between Patrick Hamilton’s masterly novel Hangover Square and the preposterous if grandiosely impressive Hollywood film version.
    This legendary (and now very old) production is fatally misconceived, exploding and negating the dynamic of the play. Priestley invites us from the word ‘go’ into the hermetic, cosseted world of the comfortable classes which, in a manner very reminiscent of James Bridie at his best, is sinuously invaded by a deceptively benign stranger who gradually destroys the (already fragile) illusion of privilege and security in the Big House by introducing more and more of the outside world to the inside one. He then watches as the nest of parasites starts to destroy itself, feeding on each other, encouraging the process now and then with further revelations. By reversing this dynamic and bringing the family outside, the production loses both the claustrophobic, contained, mounting panic of the family and the feeling that Inspector Goole is an alien invader bringing something much bigger than unpleasant truths with him.
    In addition to this, the demands of the set-design and staging dictate actions and movements, making the actors serve the concept rather than vice versa, which was a problem with another ‘big’ production I saw recently, the Lyceum’s ‘Solaris’.
    The thunderous music and silly pyrotechnics were the final insult. Priestley’s deeply intelligent subversion of the classic Gerald du Maurier type of drawing room drama was turned into a farrago of sound and fury, signifying……….

    • Tim Barraclough says:

      I couldn’t agree more with this review. The core play remains utterly compelling and there were some outstanding performances. But the overly contrived production was a distraction.

  3. Kate Shiells says:

    I enjoyed this play very much, although some of the acting was a little over the top and excitable, it also included moments of humour, special effects gave the story another aspect to a family falling apart, my only difficulty was trying to work out why people from the second world war kept appearing ?
    A good nights entertainment and much better than the TV that night.