‘In fire and blood and anguish…’

At first glance, An Inspector Calls, (King’s Theatre) and The Panopticon (Traverse) are productions at different ends of a theatre spectrum.

JB Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in 1945, this version being Stephen Daldry’s tried and tested 1992 National Theatre interpretation, whereas The Panopticon, written by Jenni Fagan, is based on her own 2012 novel.

Dig just a little deeper, however, and there is – for plays penned more than sixty years apart – and unnerving sense of familiarity. Eva Smith and Anais Hendricks are both young women who have been let down by the people who should be closest to them, by the institutions ostensibly there to care for them, and by society in general.

When the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) pays a visit to the smug and entitled Birling family, each member is slowly indicted in the suicide of Eva Smith, Priestley’s words leave us under no illusion that we’re all implicated in her horrible death – and the doll’s house on stilts (the iconic set design by Ian MacNeil) comes literally crashing down around us.

Brennan’s performance is perfectly pitched, the star of the show, and Christine Kavanagh’s superior Mrs Birling, and Chloe Orrock’s Sheila – who grows from spoiled darling to self-aware young woman – are also particularly well-drawn.

Meanwhile, Fagan’s fifteen year old Anais, thirty foster placements down, and now one step away from a secure unit, is unnervingly bright, fierce and refuses to be the victim of the watchers she calls The Experiment. When her latest care home (the panopticon) literally crashes and burns, Anais herself is one of the instigators – and Anais, well, Anais is no more.

Anna Russell-Martin, who plays Anais is extraordinary, not only for her superb acting but her staying power – she’s on stage for every scene of this demanding and exhilarating production. The rest of the cast works equally hard, each playing more than one significant part to great effect.

Both An Inspector Calls and The Panopticon are engaging, thought-provoking, unsettling, with a strong social message. Of the former, I must have seen half a dozen productions over the years; of the latter – as one of my PhD texts – I’ve read the book inside out…In spite of all that, I was thrilled all over again by both performances.

‘We are responsible for each other,’ Inspector Goole says. ‘And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’. Wise words that we’d all do well to heed,

As an aside, a panopticon is a brutal architectural design allowing all inmates of an institution to be observed by a single watcher without the inmates knowing if they’re actually being watched or not. Anais is always aware of this. Given the ending of An Inspector Calls, the Birling family might well be forgiven for thinking they were party to the same treatment…

An Inspector Calls, King’s Theatre until 12 October, then touring.

The Panopticon, Traverse Theatre until 19 October.


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