A young poor street boy comes on stage and wrestles with the curtain that has not yet raised as an air raid is happening. When it does, one hears a boisterous dinner party from a dining room inside a well-to-do Edwardian house, but it is a fairy-tale dolls house emerging out of the rubble of war on stilts. The action of the play mingles between the disproportion of the distorted shrunken house and the cobbles of the broken streets of a northern mill town below.
JB Priestley, a committed socialist, originally wrote the play during WW2 but set it in 1912, asking what should happen when the war was to finally end. Stephen Daltry’s production juxtaposes pre-WW1 sensibilities with 1944 wartime realities, while also transporting us to the present day confusion. Both playwright and director remind us of the need for shared values and a common purpose that seems startlingly resonant with Brexit and Trump, and the dispossessed and unheard that have voted for both.
Arthur Birling (Clive Francis) is a mill owner of recent wealth. He desires the respectability of old money and is celebrating the engagement of his apparently annoying daughter, Sheila (Carmella Corbett, notable in her West End debut) to Gerald Croft (Matthew Douglas) the son established breeding. Unexpectedly their soiree is interrupted by the arrival of the acerbic Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), who wants to interview the family about Eva Smith who has died a painful death in the local hospital after drinking bleach. Eva had been working in Arthur Birling’s mill but was sacked for being part of a strike for better wages. This was the start of her decline which ended up by involving all the characters in different ways – unbeknown to each of them as she changed her name – including Arthur’s imperious wife Sybil (magnificently overplayed by Barbara Marten) and his son Eric (Hamish Riddle). But here the play changes direction and Priestley asks, “How do we work together to repair the ravages of war?” Arthur’s apparently rather effete children question their parent’s assumptions as the story of the dead Eva unfolds through Goole’s questioning, forcing the family to question each of their parts in her downfall. But Priestley also questions what we take as reality by asking whether we can assume that the various incarnations of Eva are actually the same person… what is reality and who is Inspector Goole and does he actually exist? He lets the Birlings off the hook just a little by saying that however much any one person is at fault the route forward is to work together, oddly presaging Trump’s recent words after the carnage of a bruising electoral war.
Stephen Daldry first directed the play for the NT in 1992 to rapturous reviews. He captures how the Birling’s decadent life was about to fall apart with WW1, in a production seems even more relevant post the 2008 banking crash that has left so many people behind. The direction, stage design, music and lighting are first rate and support the entire cast who work excellently as an ensemble into an enjoyable evening.
The Playhouse Theatre WC2. Booking till 4th February. Get tickets for £20 www.theatreperform.entstix.com
Review by CHRIS BLATCHLEY.