An Inspector Calls at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
A gaggle of schoolboys took up a large part of the auditorium at the King’s last night – but as soon as the curtain went up there was complete silence.

J B Priestley’s classic thriller is now a popular part of the GCSE curriculum, but back in 1992 when he first directed it, Stephen Daldry’s production was ground-breaking, making it as famous as the author himself.

His multi-award winning interpretation led to a critical reappraisal of Priestley as a politically engaged playwright, and this week, with Daldry still at the helm, a huge tour of the UK began in Edinburgh after playing to millions of theatregoers in London’s West End and on Broadway, and with Scots actor Liam Brennan’s commanding presence in the title role.

Stephen Warbeck’s dramatic music and Ian MacNeil’s powerful set against an angry skyscape has the audience engaged even before anyone utters a syllable.

Sebastian Frost’s haunting wartime sirens fill the theatre as children scrabble about on a bomb site in World War II, and then the emphasis and the time changes. We’re in 1912 and within what looks almost like a dolls’ house on stilts, comes the sound of laughter as the well-do-do Birling family celebrate the engagement of their daughter.

However, the arrival of ‘the inspector’ through the auditorium reminded me of The Woman in Black. She too walks silently through the rows of seats, creating a similar atmosphere – which is, of course, appropriate as it turns out in the final scene that Inspector Goole (or ghoul) is not who he says he is, but may be a ghost or a manifestation of the guilt all of us carry.

For this is a play damning capitalism and middle-class hypocrisy, and it is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when it was written in 1945.

The inspector’s investigation into the suicide of a young working girl implicates each member of the Birling family as well as their daughter’s fiancé. The inspector forces them to look at themselves, and to hopefully learn from their mistakes. Politicians today, and social groups too, could well take note of his parting words: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one society. And the time will soon come, if we don’t learn that lesson then we will be taught it in fire and blood.’

The characters are clearly drawn and perfectly played: the puffed-up northern magnate Arthur Birling, performed with just the right cockiness by Jeffrey Harmer; Christine Kavanagh’s brittle, heartless wife Sybil; Chloe Orrock as their self-centred daughter Sheila and Ryan Saunders, who plays a blinder as the over-excited Hooray Henry, as does Alasdair Buchan as Sheila’s overwrought fiancé Gerald – a riveting performance during which he shows Gerald does have a heart, and a conscience – all held together by the servant Edna (Linda Beckett), who keeps everyone supplied with cups of tea!

This production not only shut up a load of school kids; it will give them, and the rest of us, food for thought for a very long time.

An Inspector Calls is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh until Oct 12.
Booking Office: 0131 529 6000
It then continues touring:
Oct 15-19: Oxford Playhouse
Oct 22-26: Newcastle Theatre Royal
Nov 5-9: Malvern Theatres
Nov 12-16: Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Nov 19-23: Buxton Opera House
Nov 26-30: New Wimbledon Theatre
Jan 14-18: The Lowry, Salford
Jan 21-15: Milton Keynes Theatre
Jan 29-Feb 1: Bradford Theatres
Feb 4-8: Liverpool Playhouse Theatre
Feb 11-15: Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Feb 25-29: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Mar 3-7: Theatre Royal, Plymouth
Mar 10-14: Cardiff New Theatre
Mar 17-21: Cambridge Arts Theatre
Mar 24-28: Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Mar 31-Apr 4: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Apr 14-18: Sheffield Theatres
Apr 21-25: Sunderland Empire
Apr 28-May 2: Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
May 5-9: Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
May 12-16: The Orchard Theatre, Dartford
May 19-23: Leicester Curve
Photo: Tristam Kenton