IT appears JB Priestley must have devoured Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and said to himself “I can do that” because this was his 1944 morality tale about the evils of capitalism and greed.
Almost 70 years later the play has become a “classic” and this version, directed by Stephen Daldry in 1992 (pre-Billy Elliott), has scooped multiple accolades, enjoying extended runs on London’s West End and Broadway, playing to about three million people already.
Fair dos to Daldry, he’s taken a play whose natural setting is a 1912 bourgeois drawing room and set it on a war-torn 1944 London street above which stands the elevated dolls’ house-style drawing room of a wealthy Edwardian family, the repulsive Birlings.
Led by the self-made factory owner Arthur (Geoff Leesley), whose philosophy is that all people should be “made to stand on their own two feet”, the Biring family are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Shiela (Kelly Hotten) to Gerald (John Sackville).
It’s while these rich people are indulging themselves that an inspector (Tom Mannion) calls and we are led to believe (through a series of coincidences) that each family member, through their own greed, privilege and selfishness, has played their own small part in the death of a young woman.
While Dickens’ stories are at the birth of capitalist exploitation, Priestley’s 1944 appeal for the wealthy to reform their world outlook feels unsubtle and dated, especially in the light of 2007 when the free-market capitalist system was bailed out by the taxpayer.
The audience, of which a large percentage was school students, was responsive but you wonder how many will forget the moral lessons of the play when “success” in a capitalist society is measured by your possessions and how much money you have in the bank.