These pages are from a scrapbook, kept by the playwright J B Priestley, which contains programmes and reviews of productions of a number of his plays between 1943 and 1949.
The scrapbook includes a copy of the programme for the Old Vic’s 1946 London premiere of An Inspector Calls at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. (The Old Vic Theatre Company, under the artistic direction of Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Burrell, was temporarily based at the New Theatre at this time.)
A play of no consequence or a coup de théàtre: How did critics respond to An Inspector Calls?
Reviews of the London premiere of An Inspector Calls were mixed.
The Observer’s J C Trewin thought the play too long: ‘though their offence is rank we feel that the Birlings are hardly worth this elaboration, this prolonged clatter of skeletons’.
Several critics, including Alan Dent from the News Chronicle, thought there was too much coincidence in the play: ‘We hope against hope that at least one of the characters will not be in any way involved … But no, the coincidences tot up alarmingly and insistently’; Dent concluded that it was a play of no consequence. But Stephen Potter, of the New Statesman, praised it, describing the end of the play as ‘the best coup de théàtre of the year’.
Most agreed that Ralph Richardson was outstanding as the Inspector. The Times noted the ‘exquisite skill with which (he) … struck in his inspector a balance between the mundane and the celestial’.
What was J B Priestley’s opinion of the London premiere of An Inspector Calls?
In a letter written in the late 1960s to play agent, Peggy Ramsay, Priestley reflected on why the London premiere of An Inspector Calls was not a success:
I never wanted the Old vic to do it and only Ralph’s insistence made me agree. It was not successful, chiefly because it did not belong in a repertory of picturesque costume classics — i.e. Richard the Third, Peer Gynt, Cyrano de Bergerac. It was a huge success everywhere else …
In a letter to Michael MacOwen, Priestley called the Old Vic production ‘less brilliant and experimental’ than the Moscow premiere. With its claret coloured wallpaper and solid furniture, the set of Basil Dean’s production evoked an Edwardian suburban family drawing room which, Priestley felt, underemphasised the play’s symbolism. He commented that the production was partly conditioned by the Old Vic’s reluctance to experiment. With its ‘weighty naturalism’, it was no wonder that critics thought it was ‘merely concerned with a bit of excitement in one night in 1912’.
 The letter forms the Preface in J B Priestley, An Inspector Calls (London: Heinemann, 1947), p. vi.
 Priestly, An Inspector Calls, p. vii.