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J B Priestley's classic thriller.

When Inspector Goole calls unexpectedly on the prosperous Birling family, his startling revelations not only shatter the foundations of their lives but also challenge them to examine their consciences...

Written by JB Priestley at the end of the Second World War and set in 1912, An Inspector Calls deals with problems of social injustice and class distinction - issues which remain all too familiar to this very day. 
This currently touring production, which premiered 30 years ago, has won a total of 19 major awards, been seen by more than four million theatregoers worldwide, and is the most internationally lauded production in the National Theatre’s history.

JB Priestley’s most performed play, An Inspector Calls, makes a welcome return to the Midlands this month - offering What’s On a perfect opportunity to catch up with leading man Liam Brennan and find out why the show remains so popular...

The hugely successful National Theatre production of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is out on tour again this autumn, taking in local venues in Shrewsbury, Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham and Coventry.

Directed by Stephen Daldry, the show opened in the West End 30 years ago and is both critically acclaimed - it’s won a host of Olivier, Tony and Evening Standard awards - and a favourite with audiences, having been watched by more than five million people to date.

The story focuses on the Birling family, who have met for a celebratory dinner. Suddenly there is a knock at the door - and a police inspector calls. But who is Inspector Goole, what does he want with the family, and what is their connection to the death of a young woman?

In Inspector Goole, Priestley, who was born in Yorkshire but spent his later years living in Alveston in Warwickshire, created one of the most enigmatic characters in British theatre. And it’s Goole’s air of mystery which Liam Brennan, who plays the inspector, believes lies at the heart of the play’s success.
“I guess if you’ve never seen this play before or read it, you probably would spend the time thinking ‘Who is he, is he the girl’s father, what is he?’ And that’s fun. 

“Who the inspector is, isn’t really revealed, and people want to work that out. We often do question & answer sessions after school performances, and the kids are very intrigued by the inspector. They often say to me, ‘but who are you?’

“I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I usually say ‘Look, at the end of the day, the play doesn’t answer that question, so I can’t answer it either. So it’s kind of up to you’.
“I think we love puzzles and trying to work things out, so any good detective yarn where there’s a mystery to solve, like The Mousetrap or An Inspector Calls, has an endurance. It will always intrigue us because we like trying to solve problems and work something out.” 

As Goole unpicks his story, the members of the Birling family come to learn they may know more about the dead girl than they initially realised. And it is their culpability which lies at the heart of the play.

“I think its basic themes are eternal. It’s about responsibility, it’s about kindness, it’s about looking after people - particularly people who have very little or nothing. It’s about taking responsibility for when we are all occasionally maybe a bit cruel or a bit selfish - and that theme of responsibility doesn’t go out of fashion. And it’s about more than individuals; it’s the accumulation of things that is disastrous for this young woman.”

Liam first played Goole on a UK tour eight years ago and has returned to the part again and again since then, performing in the West End, America and on UK tours. But his acquaintance with An Inspector Calls goes back beyond his involvement in the theatre production.

“I remember reading the play when I was a teenager and seeing the old black & white movie. I just thought it was really intriguing. I like the fact that all the questions don’t get answered, and we’re not sure who or what the inspector is.”

Daldry’s production, with dramatic sets by Ian MacNeil and music by Stephen Warbeck, emphasises the cryptic aspects of the story.

“In some ways this production kind of re-invents the play to a certain extent, but the spirit of it is the same. I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is because it’s very fast-paced and without an interval, and I think that kind of stresses the thriller element of it. It’s exciting, the music is great, and it has the most wonderful set. I used to expect the massive schools’ audiences to be very restless, but actually that hardly ever happens - it does seem to grip them. It’s a powerful story, and hopefully a really exciting piece of theatre, even for kids.”

Liam has toured with the show to Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn and Stoke-on-Trent’s Regent Theatre before, but this will be the first time he’s performed the role of Goole at Birmingham’s The Alexandra and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. 

“I like touring. I know some actors don’t, and it’s quite tiring because you’re in a different place each week, so you spend a lot of time on trains and sorting out digs, but I quite like that. 
“This is a great company to work for. It’s always interesting, as there are cast changes each time, so it always stays fresh. People bring their own vibe.”

After playing Inspector Goole for eight years, does Liam view the role any differently from when he first took on the part?

“Fundamentally I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I hope I’m more deft and relaxed because I’ve done it so much now. I’m sure that if I was to watch a video of me eight years ago, I would probably say, ‘Oh Liam, you look a lot more relaxed and confident now.’ But it’s such a fun role to play, and I love the story. That’s why I keep coming back to it.”

The show, which often sells out venues, is definitely one to catch, says Liam.
“It’s a really good night at the theatre. It’s a good thriller, it has a message but it’s not preachy, it looks fantastic, and hopefully it’s genuinely exciting.”

Diane Parkes

on Mon, 29 Aug 2022

Before we take our seats and join the titular Inspector for his case, let’s list the facts we know so far. JB Priestley’s play was written in 1945 and in an unlikely twist, first performed in Moscow and Leningrad the same year. Director Stephen Daldry, whose film and TV credits include the likes of Billy Elliot and The Crown, revived the production in 1992, and his version is now the longest running revival of a play in history. It’s won 19 major awards and been seen by more than five million theatregoers across the globe. The text is also on the GCSE syllabus.

Notebook aside, that last detail explains the prevalence of youngsters in a sold-out Belgrade as well as an insight into An Inspector Calls’ longevity. But beyond the fact that kids study it for an English exam, the play continues to appeal to new generations because despite being nearly 80 years old, this parable of social responsibility – which focuses on specific individuals but extends to society in general – is as relevant as ever. Daldry’s version adds an extra layer to the allure because its staging, more reminiscent of the Blitz (an air raid siren goes off at the start, and we soon know there’s more than one war going on) than its 1912 setting, is utterly magnificent, but we’ll get to that later.

First the story. A dinner party at the home of the wealthy Birling family is interrupted by the arrival of the enigmatic Inspector Goole (played by a magnificently assertive Liam Brennan), conducting investigations into the suicide of a working-class young local woman. At first the various family members deny knowing her, but it soon becomes apparent that they’ve all had an impact on her life and contributed to her despair and ultimate demise.

The revelations shake the foundations of their privileged lives – reflected by Daldry’s dynamic staging in a house that is also far from secure – and not only demonstrate how removed these characters are from the real world, but also how ignorant they (and by extension we) are of the consequences of their actions. Indeed, the fact that we can understand most of their actions – and thus need to confront our own prejudices – is what makes the play so fascinating.

Initially regarded as traditional drawing-room theatre, Priestley’s thriller is ratcheted up a few notches with Daldry at the helm, the ingenious doll’s house set effectively a character, illustrator and metaphor all in one, demonstrating not only the Birlings’ entitled isolation but also the brittle nature of their household, especially when family secrets are exposed and the house itself starts to collapse.

But as much as the set design, lighting and staging are all spectacular, they’re matched by a uniformly excellent cast, with especially strong performances from Brennan, who narrates much of the piece with more than a whiff of affront, and Jeffrey Harmer as obstinate family patriarch Arthur Birling. Chloe Orrock also earns genuine empathy for daughter Sheila Birling during her journey from entitled socialite to guilt-ridden accomplice, not least because her character’s eye-opening largely mirrors our own – a message hammered home when she briefly joins the audience on our side of the curtain.

The combination of excellent performances and thrilling presentation make for genuinely gripping theatre, and with strike action, austerity and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis still at the forefront of our collective agenda, the play’s message of community and compassion for our fellow man can hardly be more pertinent or poignant.

5 stars

Reviewed by Steve Adams at the Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 1 March 2023. The show continues at the theatre until 4 March.

5 Stars on Wed, 01 Mar 2023

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