Monster role, monster tour as Christine Kavanagh takes the long road in JB Priestley’s time play An Inspector Calls

“She’s a tyrant, she’s a monster, but I play her as a mother who believes she was right,” says Christine Kavanagh of Mrs Birling, her role in An Inspector Calls. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AN Inspector Calls keeps on calling, returning to York next week on the 30th anniversary tour to mark Stephen Daldry’s radical take on J B Priestley’s thriller opening at the National Theatre.

“We’ve been touring so long already, it feels like the longest tour in history,” says Christine Kavanagh, who is in her 30th week of playing Mrs Birling in Priestley’s 1945 time play after starting rehearsals last August.

On the road from September 9 2022 to April 28 2023, Christine applies the philosophy of “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” to handling such a demanding itinerary.

“We all support each other in the ensemble. People think it’s all about the play, but each week it’s also about ‘where do you get the best poached eggs?’. Only on Fridays are there no matinees, so that day’s known as ‘Hot Friday’. Otherwise, it’s full on, from the Tuesday tech onwards.”

Last playing York in September 2018 at a sold-out Theatre Royal, PW Productions’ tour collaboration with the National Theatre switches to the Grand Opera House this time for a February 7 to 11 run that is fully booked already.

“Can you believe it, post-Covid, we’ve sold out every theatre we’ve been to on this tour,” says Christine, who defines the sustained appeal of Daldry’s award-garlanded account of Priestley’s story of the prosperous Birling family’s peaceful dinner party in 1912 being shattered by the inspector’s unexpected call and subsequent investigations into the death of a young woman.

“Stephen basically broke the play out of the box of being seen as a fusty old political melodrama, even though Priestley viewed it as an experimental piece, playing with time, that he first performed in Russia.

“Stephen brough it alive as a play for a contemporary audience, with bombs going off around an Edwardian house that emerges from a crater, in 1945 [the year it was written], but still with that sense that we’re all about to sink, from Priestley setting the play on the night the Titanic went down.”

Applying the format of a thriller, Priestley was using his play as a warning, suggests Christine, to highlight the dangers of casual capitalism’s cruelty, complacency, and hypocrisy. 

“Priestley was in the trenches in the First World War and had suffered badly, and he was worried what was coming down the pipe. He was a fierce advocate of Socialism and the redistribution of power,” she says.

Seat of power: Christine Kavanagh’s Mrs Birling in An Inspector Calls

“In this play, a young woman who was exploited dies in poverty, and in asking who’s responsible, Priestley’s saying we are all responsible. That theme has never gone away, and in our present society, it’s a simple message of how we must care for each other.”

Daldry premiered his startling reinvigoration of An Inspector Calls at York Theatre Royal in the autumn of 1989, three years before its National Theatre debut. He remains at the helm for the latest tour, directing a cast of Kavanagh’s Mrs Birling;  Liam Brennan, reprising his role of Inspector Goole for a fifth tour; Jeffrey Harmer as Mr Birling; Simon Cotton as Gerald Croft; Chloe Orrock as Sheila Birling; George Rowlands as Eric Birling and Frances Campbell as Edna. 

“Coming back into the rehearsal room, it was like Stephen was 22 again, loving being with us in our scruffs, with his sense of humour and mischief and his playfulness. He still loves all that,” says Christine.

“Not many productions can stand the test of time, and you could get cynical after a while, but then you see the effect this play has on schoolchildren, how hooked they are.”

What does she make of Mrs Birling, with all her shouting and foot stamping? “She represents power; she’s a tyrant, she’s a monster, but I play her as a mother who believes she was right. She’s rather intransigent and thinks, ‘I was just doing my duty’,” she says.

“I’m a mother too and I’m known for my sense of humour, whereas Mrs Birling has had a sense of humour bypass. I don’t know if I empathise with her, but it might be fun being filthy rich…but only for a while, though they always say ‘ the devil has the best lines’.”

As for the costumes, Christine’s heaviest dress wears six kilos off the waist. “That’s just the weight of all that silk. It’s like wearing a rucksack!” she says. “Each costume is handmade for each tour. The designs are fabulous.”

Christine, who studied at Bretton Halll College of Education in West Yorkshire, draws on all her experience of stage travels at 65. “Living out of a suitcase goes with the territory of going on tour, but you have to find ways to cope psychologically by bringing your creature comforts with you and not staying in Mrs Goggins’ digs 30 minutes from the theatre. I like my frothy coffee maker!” she says. “You have to look after yourself really well. Take your multi-vitamins and go to bed as early as you can.”

The long tour has afforded Christine a different opportunity too. “There’s not a city we don’t play, so going around the country lets you reflect on whether levelling up is happening or not,” she says. “I think every politician should do that.”

PW Productions and the National Theatre present An Inspector Calls at Grand Opera House, York, from February 7 to 11, 7.30pm plus Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. SOLD OUT. Box office for returns only:

Copyright of The Press, York

2 Replies to “Monster role, monster tour as Christine Kavanagh takes the long road in JB Priestley’s time play An Inspector Calls”

  1. Superb interview.
    Hooked me as much as I remember the production did at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. Christine gives a magnificently entitled performance.

  2. Wonderful interview! I had forgotten the play starts in the night the Titanic sunk! It’s riveting theatre— but so grueling for the company traveling like that. Thank you to Christine and the entire cast.

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