Now feels like a particularly good time to revisit J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a classic piece of polemical theatre that held me spellbound me when I first saw it a very long time ago. It was inevitably less thrilling (for me) this time round, because it’s a play that relies on mystery style suspense: the unhinging of a middle class Edwardian family around the story of one woman who has crossed their collective path. But for the teenagers, aged 12-18, whom my two friends and I took along, it was clearly an interesting experience and a big talking point afterwards.
There were odd touches to this production, at the Wimbledon theatre. There was an excessively emphatic, almost manic Inspector Goole, the central character around which all the action revolves; the exquisitely furnished Edwardian house was set amid a ravaged Second World War lunar style landscape. But, overall, the acting was excellent and set was sensational, particularly when the whole house seemed to upend and tip forward perilously, looking at one point as if it would slide right into the audience.
Add to this the fact that on the night we went, the audience was stuffed with parties of teenagers – An Inspector Calls is a GCSE set text – who rustled with school-night-out excitement. At the end, when the ghosts of a uncaring society populate the stage, there was general hilarity rather than the expected sombre silence!
In many ways the play feels dated – all that overt Edwardian sexual hypocrisy – but its political message is bang up to the moment. I don’t have a copy of the playscript but I’m going to get one, for its message is straightforward and timely; greed and ambition lead so often to snobbish isolation, cruelty and hypocrisy of the worst kind. Priestley hammers home his view, that we are all connected and all responsible for each other. And the price of not being? Social disaster. That perfect house, creaking and tipping into oblivion; the ravaged war torn landscape that surrounds it.