For those who didn’t study the text at school or haven’t seen the 1954 film with Alastair Sim, An Inspector Calls is a JB Priestly play set in 1912.
First performed (in the Soviet Union) in 1945, it is a story that focusses on the death of a young woman, variously called Eva Smith or Daisy Renton and the connection her death has to every member of the well-to-do Berling family. As the story unfolds it dismantles the cosy pretentions of the family and makes many political points.
There is also a twist at the end, connected to the titular Inspector Goole. This moves the play to a supernatural level and arguably makes the whole thing more powerful.
This new production of An Inspector Calls comes as part of BBC One’s current run of 20th Century literary adaptations for Sunday nights.
Running at 90 minutes, Helen Edmundson’s version never feels hurried yet builds tension nicely as it moves from drawing room to damnation. The cast work well and (with some exceptions) feel balanced. The lead role of Inspector Goole is taken by David Thewlis (Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter films) and he plays with a dry aplomb always calm, spending a lot of time seated when the family are all standing. With the direction and camera angles his control of the room is powerful yet not over-stated.
The Berling family is led by the mill-owning Arthur Birling (Rebus star Ken Stott). He pitches pride, snobbery, family and disdain for troublemakers without becoming one-dimensional. His wife, Sybil, is played by Miranda Richardson and here is the one part that felt constrained. Richardson never quite reached her peak in this – the scenes at the end when she realises the fate of the girl is tied to the future of her family, and she contributed to not only the death of Daisy Renton but also an unborn child could have been more emotional.
Daisy / Eva was played by Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) and it is a difficult part; continually the victim of fate, society and a sequence of poor decisions. We feel for her as we must but while she is the catalyst, she is not the hero of this story. Rundle turns in a strong performance and everyone watching will have regretted her death.
The most interesting parts are the two Berling children – Eric and Sheila. They give another dimension to the story, the new generation versus the old. The play is set before World War I and elements leak through.
Eric is very strong. He starts as a downtrodden, drunken youngster, his father disdaining him at every opportunity, smothering him as she does everyone else. As events unfold he disintegrates and genuinely regrets not doing more for Daisy / Eva.
Chloe Pirrie excels as his sister, Sheila – if you thought she was good in BBC Two’s recent spy drama The Game, that was no one-off. The development of her character and relationship with her brother are well realised and the direction from Aisling Walsh is subtle and very effective.
The whole production is a joy from the first scene to the last.
Aired at 8.30pm on Sunday 13 September 2015 on BBC One.
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