The National Theatre’s last production of a J.B. Priestley play, Stephen Daldry’s radical reinvention of An Inspector Calls, is still on tour nearly 17 years after it opened. It may in part be this landmark status that led the NT to bring in Rupert Goold, whose recent productions of Shakespeare and Pirandello have been beyond radical and some way out the other side. Oddly, this time play of Priestley’s gives Goold little to get a firm grip on.

In Act One, we see a 21st birthday party for one of the daughters of a commercial-gentry family in 1919: the war to end all wars is over, everyone is looking forward to an era of prosperity, enjoyment and, in the case of sister Madge, socialist advances. Act Two flashes forward to 1938, a meeting at which the family faces bankruptcy and the comprehensive failure of each individual’s dreams; Act Three returns to 1919 for a relentless jackhammer of dramatic irony as each takes the first step on their path to unfulfilment, while Kay tries in vain to recall her half-memories of her timeslip vision of the future.

It sounds fecund for re-envisioning, but in practice all Goold can do is insert a little trompe l’oeil jiggery-pokery with Laura Hopkins’ set at the end of each act, with some visually arresting but imprecise (in both meaning and movement) dance sequences accompanying the latter two. His previous successes have been rooted in specific interpretations of plays both overall and at given moments; Priestley’s sense of time as co-existent as well as linear, though, affords staging opportunities only for vague impressionism.

Even the acting occasionally goes awry. The opening moments, as the Conway daughters prepare for a game of charades, sound uncomfortably shrill; in Act Two, Francesca Annis as Mrs Conway ages her voice so that it sounds as if she is playing a retired colonel; and Paul Ready’s portrayal of older, greyer brother Alan, although wonderful, is strangely reminiscent in mannerism of Jimmy Stewart. But Hattie Morahan and Fenella Woolgar turn in excellent performances as Kay, the would-be novelist who subsides into hack journalism, and socialist firebrand-turned-selfish schoolmarm Madge; Faye Castelow is appealing as the youngest and most vivacious sister Carol; and the second act is harrowing in its portrayal of how much a group of human beings can lose of themselves. ★★★☆☆

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