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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Novello


  Ph: Robert Day

Can it really be 17 years? Yes it can. It was back in 1992 that Stephen Daldry reinvented J. B. Priestley’s repertory-theatre warhorse as a bold, expressionist drama for the National Theatre. In the West End and on tour, it
 made Daldry a fortune long before the multiple guises of Billy Elliott made him another. What’s more, it’s still going strong. This touring production has fetched up at the Novello for a limited season before James Earl Jones and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come in.
The production of An Inspector Calls has suffered a slight coarsening over the years, but it still makes for great, stirring, thought-provoking entertainment. The play, written in 1944 but set before the First World War, is a parable about social responsibility, in which members of a wealthy family are implicated by a mysterious inspector in the death of a young girl. It seemed timely again in the recession of 1992, and it seems timely again now.
The set still shocks, a bombsite frequented by urchins. At its center, a miniature mansion from which the braying Birling family emerge like grotesquely oversized dolls. Nicholas Woodeson’s stocky, hard-eyed Inspector Goole draws them out one by one, as if pulling teeth without an anesthetic. Woodeson adopts a strident, hectoring tone, which is effective if somewhat monotonous.
The rest of the cast play archetypes (the blustering northern plutocrat, the roguish soon-to-be son-in-law, the silly, weak son). But they play them at one remove, as if commenting on them. Sandra Duncan’s Mrs. Birling has a nice line in hauteur, and Timothy Watson looks born to wear a cad’s moustache as Gerald Croft. I particularly liked Marianne Oldham as the Birling’s daughter, Sheila—a foolish girl into whom understanding and empathy seep like ink into water.
Even if the tone of Daldry’s original production (now helmed by associate director Julian Webber) is a little less fine and varied than it was, the denouement is still lethally effective. The Birlings’ house teeters, showering crockery onto the stage, as the family, wrapped in blankets, hunker down in the drizzle. At a time when there seems a new appetite for serious work in the West End, it’s good to have this Inspector back. Even for a limited season.

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