The holiday season isn’t entirely behind us as the ghost of Christmas yet to come inhabits the Lowry Lyric theatre, reflecting on our self-absorbed worldview. The National Theatre’s immensely popular and visually thrilling production of J.B Priestley spiritually realist fable has added a few extra twists to its masterfully modern creation.
Priestley’s 1954 tale reimagined by Olivier award-winning and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry, unleashes a warped production that spotlights the Birling family in an ever-unravelling story surrounding power and prejudice. Daldry, who has moved between stage and screen with the longstanding Billy Elliot (2000) as well as the upcoming Wicked (2021) film musical, transitions the shadowy Birling’s family between real and mystical settings. Wrapping their opulent suburban house around multicoloured skies, Daldry centres their home on the stage, cracked open to allow audiences to peek inside.
After inspector Goole interrupts the family’s engagement dinner, he takes his time serving up a lesson in social responsibilities and empathy. While conducting an enquiry into the suicide of the family’s ex-employee Eva Smith, the character-driven narrative uncovers concerning connections between the family and Eva’s death. Unsettling influences exposed through suspenseful flashbacks and thrilling direction remains framed in the Birling’s lavish home, where the inspector illuminates the family’s association with Eva. Inviting audiences to question their motives, the thriller moves through glimpses of each individual characters’ lives despite barely moving outside the bubble of the family home.
While the characters confessions are reflected through the impressively expressive set and rich costumes, the colourful casting ensures the scandalous stories are also driven with humour. The naive Birling children, played by Chloe Orrock (Sheila) and Ryan Saunders (Eric), are countered by their overbearing parents, Christine Kavanagh and Jeffrey Harmer. While the children are mainly used as a sounding board for the detective’s antics, Mr and Mrs Birling’s skewed perspective is skilfully balanced by Liam Brennan playing inspector Goole. Speaking on behalf of the family, Mr Birling clashes with the detective, allowing Harmer to shine with almost pantomime villainy. Striking out and dishing some outrageous lines against Goole’s sharp comebacks, Brennan’s understated performance ties the story together, restoring justice with his cold and commanding presence.
Fitted with symbols of the family’s guilt, Priestley’s straightforward story seizes on the themes of empathy, asking us to learn from our past and present mistakes. In an extremely weathered production that gathers lashings of alarming rainclouds over the heads of its cast, Daldry delivers a profoundly compelling and surprisingly hopeful narrative. Speaking directly to the crowd, this production removes the stage boundaries, moving Brennan out of the stalls and onto the stage, and enveloping the audience in a fog that clouds all in the Lowry theatre. Priestley’s classic investigates the lives of others, but Daldry’s grand retelling brings a dazzling direction that unwinds the Birling’s personal stories into a dark and captivating production.