When, back in the early 90s, Stephen Daldry revealed his intention to stage An Inspector Calls at the National you can imagine it raising a few eyebrows.
But Daldry knew exactly what he was doing, taking what was perceived as a rather hoary old theatrical classic and infusing it with a narrative vigour which showed that rather than being dated, Priestley’s morality tale was in fact timeless.
And almost 30 years on, the production’s audacious staging and onion-skin storytelling (the action unfolds in 1912, which is set inside a carapace of 1945 – the year the play was written, and then breaks the fourth wall to involve the audience of 2020) still feels lively and fresh and with plenty of uncomfortable truths to ponder.
Designer Ian MacNeil’s spectacular set is one of the stars of the show – a Lemony Snicket-style Edwardian dolls house time machine which appears to have had a bumpy landing among the torn-up cobbles of a Blitz-hit landscape.
Streams of water and reams of smoke (so much smoke that it appeared to have triggered the fire alarm on opening night, leading, somewhat aptly given the wartime setting, to a full evacuation of the theatre and a 40-minute hiatus in the show), and a menacing soundscape from composer Stephen Warbeck, create a tense atmosphere even before the eponymous inspector makes his entrance.
When he calls, the Birling family are celebrating a happy occasion, the engagement of daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrack) to Gerald (Alasdair Buchan), the scion of a rival industrialist family.
The Birlings are self-regarding, complacent and cossetted inside their own little entitled world – and about to get a rude awakening when the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives to quiz them in connection with the suicide of a destitute young woman.
One by one they are compelled to admit their connection with the dead woman. But are all of them willing to accept the role they played in her downfall?
Brennan is gripping as the inspector who quietly reveals the hypocrisy of the arrogant and entitled assembly, becoming increasingly frustrated with their dissembling and lack of humanity...and humility.
And there are good solid performances from the assembled cast, particularly Christine Kavanagh as the imperious matriarch and Orrack as the daughter who undergoes a most profound change of conscience and understanding.
A touch of torrid melodrama creeps in as the tale gathers pace.
But its central message comes through with the clarity and volume of an all-clear siren.
Priestley wrote his play during a time when the world, like the Birlings’ house, had tipped, and a brave new post-war world waited on the horizon – a world the playwright was addressing directly when he had his inspector point out: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other”.
And 75 years on, that simple but powerful truth continues to resonate.