Review: An Inspector Calls depicts capitalism red in tooth and claw on Coventry stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews An Inspector Calls at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

J B Priestley’s classic 1945 play of social conscience is brought to spectacular life at the Belgrade.

It tells the tale of impact of the death of Eva Smith, a young woman employed in Arthur Birling’s (Jeffrey Harmer) factory in 1912 who, after suffering rejection and exploitation at the hands of the factory owning Birling family’s indifference to her and her kind, kills herself. She never appears on stage, but her presence is felt throughout in the actions of those whose indifference to her led to her death. Were this an Agatha Christie the murderers would have had some personal motive for the victim’s death. But this is no cosy parlour game. This is capitalism red in tooth and claw, dressed up in fine clothing and good living, where the rich can do what they like, and the poor pay for it. Until, that is, the eponymous Inspector calls their bluff and shows them up for what they are.

The play’s classic status somewhat obscures its revolutionary past, and the sheer boldness of its intent. It was born in the last year of the Second World War, and was first performed in Moscow, at a time when Britain was flirting with socialism. Since then it has gone on to be a cornerstone of the British dramatic scene, both amateur and professional.

This adaptation sees something of the original stage design and Stephen Daldry’s 1992 National Theatre production, updated with 21st century technology. We open to a semi derelict landscape within which, posed high on stilts, the Birling family dine in a house removed from the poverty and squalor around them. The difference and the relationship between the upper classes and the lower could hardly be more starkly drawn. A spiral steel staircase is eventually slammed into place, the only link between the two worlds, along which pass this unholy example of 20th century power as they descend into hell and rise again to their inflated palace in the sky. The set alone is worth a visit: dark, sinister, unearthly.

Liam Brennan does a fine job as Inspector Goole, a dour Scots character who appears out of nowhere and delivers a forensic analysis of each member of the family’s culpability before disappearing into obscurity again. We never know who he really is, of course, but we don’t need to. His role is merely to show up the others’ guilt. The play is heavy on message, melodrama and moral opprobrium and owes a lot to Classical Greek drama. It would be tedious were it not for the good acting, fine character development and excellent stage craft of this production. I particularly liked the use of ‘The Community,’ six silent actors drawn from the local community, who individually and collectively, bear witness to this small but hugely significant tragedy.

An Inspector Calls runs at the Belgrade Theatre until March 4. Visit or call 024 7655 3055 to book or for more information.