TRUTH, BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
Nearly 25 years on from its first outing at the National, Stephen Daldry’s interpretation of the old JB Priestley standard – not least due to Ian MacNeil’s design – is one of the most powerful stage metaphors ever. The smug Birling family are both elevated and nicely cramped – the physical reflecting the mental – in a bright-lit dolls-house perched above a misty, derelict city and its wandering urchins. The interrogation and revelations that rock them – and literally bring their house down – are staged like a ‘40s air raid, even down to the smoky, climactic moment when members collapse amid wreckage and are swathed in brown blankets by silent citizens.. Yet the house rises and brightens again in smugness, for a moment.
There was some astonishment in 1992 that Stephen Daldry, edgy new director, not only chose Priestley’s morality play but stripped away the fusty Edwardiana which had distanced its capitalist arrogance from our own. But it blew us away then, and does it again now, its force undimmed. Daldry, as we know from everything from Billy Elliott to Netflix’s The Crown, is at his best dealing with dramatic social and moral themes. And that this production is back to make a new generation gasp is splendid: I watched a matinee alongside at least two enormous school parties, blazers and hijabs all around me, swaggering or giggling in with squawks about “No interval? Whassat? Miss!”.
But its hundred minutes saw them quiet, breathingly absorbed and, more than once, gasping. Not bad for a 1912 play about a smug Edwardian family party visited by the artfully titled “Inspector Goole”, who gradually makes them all realize that each in turn – father, mother, son, daughter and her fiancé, has been – or may have been – complicit in driving a young woman to a horrible suicide.
Daldry and MacNeil’s sociali-justice metaphor of the rich house precariously aloft over a changing, struggling city could hardly be more fit for London 2016: the arrogant, petulant, grasping rich literally besieged by the reality of wider society and refusing the lessons of justice. “If we will not learn that lesson” says Goole, to the audience, “we will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”. Behind him, in the cathartic moment, Mrs Birling is trying to polish her silverware, her husband blustering, only the younger spirits shaken into understanding the responsibility, long denied by old Birling, for “all having to look after each other like bees in a hive”.
Despite odd stylized moments when the fourth wall breaks down and we are told truths to our massed faces, the cast are vivid. Liam Brennan is an unusually emphatic Goole (well, unusually for me as I love the Alistair Sim film, but it works), Clive Francis blusters splendidly as Birling, Carmela Corbett moves Sheila from giggling bravura to horrified recognition, and Hamish Riddle is particularly startling as the high-pitchedly dissolute son Eric. The only performance moving towards caricature – and may I say, in a very good and apt way which got the school parties giggling with horror – is Barbara Marten as the matriarch, channelling a mixture of Lady Marjorie in Upstairs Downstairs and Steve Nallon doing his most emphatic version of mid-period Thatcher. Maggie-nificent.
box office 0844 871 7615 atgtickets.com
to 4 Feb