An Inspector Calls at the New Theatre, Cardiff

A new production of the J. B. Priestley play
Stage design of J. B. Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls' (dir. Stephen Daldry)

'When Inspector Goole arrives unexpectedly at the prosperous Birling family home, their peaceful dinner party is shattered by his investigations into the death of a young woman. His startling revelations shake the very foundations of their lives and challenge us all to examine our consciences.'

Yesterday afternoon, I went along to a production of J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, and was unexpectedly surprised by the ambitious stage design. I was familiar with the play as a standard text for school examinations, and remember that the polemical thrust of the narrative could hardly have been less subtle.

An Inspector Calls
forces its way into the polite drawing-room drama of pre-war Britain, and questions comfortable middle-class assumptions of individual freedom and responsibility. One-by-one, attendees of a celebratory evening party are questioned for the part they played in the suicide of one Eva Smith, a convenient polticized emblem of a disenfranchised working class. As the drama unfolds, the inspector is driven to unravel the social causes for her tragic demise - all of which are firmly rooted in the complacent comforts of one bourgeois home.

I can see why An Inspector Calls is considered such a favourite for student analysis, as the narrative is neatly structured by a clear and unambiguous message: a message that manifests itself in every metaphor and inflection in the play. And, I must be honest, it's a message that grows weary and tiring at certain points. But the ambiguous stage design for this recent production, directed by Stephen Daldry, translates Priestley's critique to the set via a series of distinctly memorable images.

Firstly, the play does not take place in a drawing room. Well, not strictly-speaking. The curtain rises on a dilapidated urban street-scene, where children play among scraps of food and random debris; rain filters through the cobbled stones underfoot as we hear laughter and conversation in the centre of the stage. The children, oblivious, occupy themselves with street passers-by, late into the night, while the audience's attention is drawn necessarily towards the well-to-do middle-class home in the centre of the stage. It is, in essence, a confined domestic facade, matching a dollhouse in appearance, and built on an uneasy foundation of poverty and foreboding.

Upon the arrival of the inspector early in the play, the house is opened up to the audience in much the same way as a dollhouse, revealing a cross-section of the one-room interior. As each character reveals the part they played in Eva Smith's death, they are drawn out of the room and onto the street.

Secrets appear to metaphorically spill out of the house and into the public domain, while, simultaneously, characters' privileges and wealth are neatly contextualized in terms of the grim realities of the street. There is a draught in the drawing room that is impossible to ignore, and while the house creaks under the strain of the inspector's scrutiny, each character's realization of responsibility is punctuated by rainfall, fog, street-observers and slips on the cobbles. All-in-all, it was a nice touch, and for me the dollhouse-like structure was undoubtedly the star of the show.

An Inspector Calls will be running at the West End from 22 September to 14 November. You can find out more information at the official website, by clicking here.