An Inspector Calls: a masterpiece of mystery and sustained tension ★★★★

Tony Peters finds the message in J B Priestley's classic as relevant as ever

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Another, and very welcome, revival for the National Theatre production of JB Priestley’s classic mystery thriller directed by Stephen Daldry.

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It is the stuff of theatrical legend how, in 1992, Daldry took this am-dram and GCSE text staple, and gave it a new and vital lease of life, winning awards in the UK and triumphantly transferring to Broadway where it picked up more accolades. Back again now for a limited run, its message of community, tolerance and compassion hits the spot with an almost eerie prescience in the current climate.

Set in 1912, but written in 1945 when its message was equally relevant, it sees the gruff, self-made northern businessman Arthur Birling (Clive Francis) hosting a dinner party for his daughter Sheila, who has just become engaged.

The proceedings are interrupted by the mysterious Inspector Goole, who brings news of a young woman’s suicide earlier that day. The family’s initial “what-has-this-got-to-do-with-us” arrogance is soon deflated by Goole when it becomes clear that all of them have in some way a link to the desperate individual.

That’s a decent tale right there, but there are more nuances and layers than that.

The unfolding of the plot is a masterpiece of mystery and sustained tension that Daldry marshals superbly, without pitching over into drawing-room melodrama.

At times, events take on an almost surreal quality thanks to Ian MacNeil’s quite remarkable set, Rick Fisher’s lighting and Sebastian Frost’s sound design. All the elements combining to give a palpable air of menace as Goole dismantles the Birling clan’s lies and hypocrisy.

Liam Brennan as the mysterious Inspector is not as enigmatic as one might imagine him from the text, but his passionate defence, albeit too late, of the dead girl is thoroughly moving. And the actor did wonders not being thrown by a mobile phone going off at a particularly tense moment on the night that I was there.

Both Francis and Barbara Marten as the haughty Birling matriarch are excellent, and there’s a nice turn from Carmela Corbett, making her West End debut as Sheila.

Excellent performances and Daldry’s inspired directorial flourishes make this a thoroughly gripping and thought-provoking experience.

 An Inspector Calls is at the Playhouse Theatre until 4 February


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