Stephen Daldry’s revival of JB Priestly’s crusading post-war drama has been thrilling critics and audiences alike since it first opened at the National Theatre in 1992.
A monster hit from the start, the production received three Olivier Awards – for Best Revival, Best Director and Best Designer – and transferred to the West End where it enjoyed a two-year season before opening on Broadway and winning an unprecedented number of accolades including four Tony Awards.
Since 1992, Daldry’s daring production seems to have been touring ever since. The director, who since becoming the darling of fringe theatre went on to find critical acclaim in film with Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader, took what was thought to be an old warhorse and turned it on its head.
With its epic and wildly imaginative staging, cinematic score and lashing rain, it’s easy to see Daldry was destined for the big screen.
Set in April 1912, at the home of the prosperous Birling family, the whole evening plays out on a lamp-lit cobbled street and inside a dolls house on stilts which the family can barely squeeze into – heightening the claustrophobia of the plot – and which opens and tilts to brilliant effect.
Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, their daughter Sheila and son Eric are in the drawing room just after dinner celebrating Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, heir to the most successful family business in the North of England.
But their cosy celebration is suddenly interrupted by the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of Police Inspector Goole, strongly portrayed by Tom Mannion.
The Inspector says he has come to the Birling family home as part of an inquiry into the death of a young woman and as his investigation unfolds, we discover they each have secrets linking them to the tragedy.
Written by committed socialist Priestly, at the close of the Second World War, the play is an angry diatribe against the settled order of society.
First performed in Moscow in 1945, it found instant appeal amongst a British electorate who decisively rejected Churchill the war leader in favour of Attlee the Labour reformer. It was a time of high ideals and Priestly pulls no punches in setting out his vision for society and how people like the Birlings are culpable for the destruction of human life.
This brazen social moralising may have been fresh and current in the 1940s, but today it seems obvious and heavy-handed. For the first two Acts we are battered round the head with the idea we must treat people with respect and equality.
Community is what matters, not blind self interest. And though this may have been a valuable and clear lesson to the hordes of GCSE school children bussed in to watch the play, a work of greater subtlety would have a far greater impact on the audience and leave you much less exhausted by the Inspector’s indignant righteousness.
At one point he turns to the audience, with a host of ‘ordinary folk’ behind him, and plainly tells us we have to look after all people and become one community if we are to stop the “fire and blood and anguish.” That is all well and good, but if we had been allowed to come to that conclusion through the power of the plot and performance, we would be all the more susceptible to its message.
The lack of subtlety also extended to the performances. While every character was excellently portrayed, their only way of expressing themselves seemed to be through shouting. Almost every line uttered was hurled at the others as if they were appearing on a well-dressed edition of the Jeremy Kyle Show.
The audience of restless GCSE students added to the atmosphere of a slanging match with attendant “ooohs” and “aaaahs” whenever a moment of drama managed to raise itself from a seemingly endless roll of dramatic revelations.
The staging and production is undeniably brilliant, and the performances are well honed, but the firebrand message the play rams down your throat is a dated and obvious.
The dramatic twist at the end does a lot to save it from being a straightforward morality tale, but the message is carried with all the subtlety of a stampede of elephants. Perhaps that is why they throw it down school children’s necks.