Setting scene for divided society
When director Stephen Daldry first re-invented what had become an unfashionable and inexpensive standby for amateur drama and provincial repertory theatre companies as his debut production for the National Theatre there was predictable scepticism about his judgement.
Blackpool Grand was at the time one of seven provincial theatres prepared to sue if the National Theatre didn’t go ahead with its ambitious revival and subsequent tour.
But 20 years on from that 1992 gamble and the multi award winning play is now as much a theatrical must-see as The Mousetrap and The Lady In Black – and a good deal more potent.
JB Priestley’s story of the complacently affluent industrialist Arthur Birling, his snooty wife Sybil, wastrel son Eric, eligible daughter Sheila and her foppish fiancé Gerald Croft who are forced one celebratory evening in 1912 to confront their culpability in the sacking, pregnancy and suicide of working class girl Eva Smith, is as powerful today as when first staged in Moscow in 1945 – because no suitable London theatre could be found.
Today it is the production itself which tells the story and carries the message of a society divided. Inside the opulent – but dramatically miniaturised – Birling home World War I is two years away, outside on the cobbled streets there is poverty and the air-raid sirens of World War II.
The Birlings’ balloon of Edwardian immunity is burst with the arrival of Inspector Goole – an enigmatic character who remains outside their physical world whilst stripping away their hypocrisies and deceits one layer at a time.
There are still moments of melodrama and even humour – as Priestley would have appreciated – but the star of the show is always going to be Ian Macneil’s stunning design aided and abetted by Stephen Warbeck’s loud and evocative score.