An Inspector Calls

Feb 2 2023 | By More

★★★★☆    Searching

Festival Theatre: Tue 31 Jan – Sat 4 Feb 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

Stephen Daldry’s extraordinary production of JB Priestley’s classic play, An Inspector Calls, originally created for the English National Theatre, returns to Edinburgh this week and is no less powerful for being staged in the cavernous Festival Theatre.

Indeed, the Festival’s wide proscenium and spacious auditorium serve to emphasise one of the production’s key aspects which bring it into the here and now. And while this is clearly a continuation of the Covid-interrupted 2019 tour which visited the Kings (★★★★☆ Worryingly compelling), it now growls with an even greater relevance.

Liam Brennan in An Inspector Calls.

Priestley’s play, written in 1945 and set in 1912, concerns the rich Birling family who are holding a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, eldest son of another, competing, mill-owning family.

Rather too much fine wine has been drunk and the patriarch, Arthur, is prone to pontificating on the financial benefits of unifying the two families – thus driving down costs and pushing up the prices they can get for their products.

Into this self-congratulatory mess of capitalist arrogance, whose tone would surely be recognised around many dinner tables of those who have gained huge financial advantage during Covid, walks one Inspector Goole.


Goole has news. A certain Eva Smith has just died of her own hand, by swallowing bleach, and he is here to interrogate the family as to their various involvements with the deceased and how each may have had a hand in her downfall.

Liam Brennan remains perfect for the role, prowling the stage as he interrogates the five members of the family. At times wheedling, at others demanding, always clear in the knowledge of the family’s individual culpabilities. It is a stand-out performance from a stand-out actor.

Frances Campbell as the maid, Edna, in An Inspector Calls.

This is the production with design by Ian MacNeil in which the dining room is not presented four square, but in a Baba Yaga-like house, up on stilts, bursting up like a pustule through the surrounding setts of a barren wasteland, with only a bomb-blasted red telephone box for company.

So Goole never enters the dining room itself; rather he is ushered in from the auditorium, up over the footlights by a small boy, inviting the family out into his world to face his questions.

Just as the dining room is a time bubble bursting into England at the end of World War 2, with Goole clearly of the latter time, so the theatre in which their drama is played is another bubble, bursting into our time, with the audience complicit in the action. And it is this extra level which the Festival Theatre’s space reinforces.

community and responsibility

The family’s appeals as to their innocence and Goole’s key final speech, emphasising the need for community and responsibility, are delivered direct to the audience. The question is whether we are jury or fellow plaintiffs, implicated as perpetrators of thoughtless acts that destroy others.

Jeffrey Harmer as Arthur with George Rowlands as Eric (left) and Simon Cotton as Gerald (right) in An Inspector Calls.

As to the performances, the returning Jeffrey Harmer as Arthur hasn’t lost his over-plush plumminess, but he delivers his lines at considerable pace and with commendable clarity. He and Christine Kavanagh, returning to the role of the mother, Sybil Birling, create suitably hateful monsters, unrepentant of their part in the tragedy.

Of the remaining cast, only Chloe Orrock was in the 2019 tour. Orrock brings a complexity to the role, first depicting a real sense of Sheila’s initial entitlement, but then considerably allayed by her eventual understanding of what has occurred and contrition for her own and her family’s role.

Simon Cotton as Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald Croft, has the necessary caddish man-about-town to him, while George Rowlands as her younger brother, the wastrel Eric, conveys a sense shame at the family’s actions – there is hope, here, that change is possible.

A more sinister and subtle reading of Priestley’s script could undoubtedly have been made. But three years on from Brexit and with allegations of sleaze at the heart of government turning into seemingly daily revelations, this revival feels as relevant now, if not more so, than it must have done in 1992.

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes (no interval).
Festival Theatre 3/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000.
Tue 31 Jan – Sat 4 Feb 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm, Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and further details: Book here.

Glasgow Theatre Royal. 282 Hope Street, Glasgow G2 3QA
Tue 23 – Sat 27 May 2023.
Evenings: 7.30; Matinees Weds, Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and further details: Book here.


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