Penned in 1945, J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller “An Inspector Calls” is one of the most popular plays in the history of British theater. In 1992, director Stephen Daldry (“The Crown,” “Billy Elliot”) staged the production for modern-day audiences in London and, since then, “An Inspector Calls” has gone on to award-winning runs (including nabbing multiple Tony Awards for its 1994 Broadway revival) and has been seen by more than four million theatergoers worldwide. The play, which centers around the mysterious death of a young woman and an inspector’s subsequent criminal investigation, is now in the midst of a four-city U.S. tour, recently bowing on Jan. 23 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where it will run through Feb. 10.
Daldry’s landmark National Theatre of Great Britain production, which Paul Crewes, the Wallis’ artistic director, calls a “transformative moment for theater in the U.K.,” still engages and entertains audiences 25 years after Daldry first staged it. With the Inspector’s famous line proclaiming, “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,” it remains as relevant in Trump’s America as it was in Margaret Thatcher’s 1990s England.
Scottish actor Liam Brennan has played lead protagonist Inspector Goole three times now, but the role never gets old, he says.
“I remember seeing the old black-and-white movie of ‘An Inspector Calls’ when I was young and loved it,” Brennan recalls. “I also read the play as a teenager and I loved the mystery element to it. For me, the fundamental question of who is the Inspector is something that the writer doesn’t answer, which is frustrating, but it also sparks debate. If there is a theme to the play, it’s a plea for kindness and understanding while not condemning someone for their circumstances. I don’t believe kindness and understanding should ever go out of fashion. The girl in the play does what she has to do to survive and who is anyone to condemn that? Fundamentally, any interesting play and any interesting character has relevance if one seeks to find it.”
“It’s a normality take as much as it is a detective or mystery story,” adds Crewes. “Fundamentally, it’s a story that people will listen to and make sense of in today’s world.”
With staging elements that include real water for rain and an authentic-looking Edwardian house balanced on stilts, Crewes notes that Daldry’s designer Ian MacNeil, “created an aesthetic that helped tell this story to a whole new generation of audiences. It’s a stand-out design. It’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of theater I’ve seen.”
Keeping the play, which also stars Christine Kavanagh (Sybil Birling) and Jeff Harmer (Arthur Birling), exciting not only for audiences, but for the cast, is something in which Brennan relishes creatively.
“I’ve always felt that the character of the Inspector is a bit of a blank page, there isn’t really a character to hang your coat on as he basically only asks questions,” he says. “I think the knack to playing this character is to just bring yourself. I think you keep it fresh the same way you make anything fresh. My friend Mark Rylance makes a brilliant analogy about keeping theatre live and in the moment. He says ‘You don’t want the baker who bakes your wedding cake to make exactly the same one as the couple before — you want him to make something special for you.’ As actors, we should treat each audience as a new thing.”