REVIEW: An Inspector Calls, PW Productions/National Theatre, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. SOLD OUT *****

Seat of power on shaky ground: Christine Kavanagh’s Sybil Birling, Jeffrey Harmer’s Arthur Birling and Chloe Orrock’s Sheila Birling in An Inspector Calls. Picture: Tristram Kenton

IT began at York Theatre Royal in 1989, last played there in 2018 and sold out this week’s run at the Grand Opera House well before the opening night.

Welcome back Stephen Daldry’s award-encrusted reinvention of Bradford socialist playwright JB Priestley’s time play, a set text on the school curriculum. Hence teenagers aplenty at Wednesday’s matinee, initially tucking into noisy packet contents, but gradually being drawn into Inspector Goole’s forensic, if unconventional inquisition of the wealthy Birling family on the 1912 night that daughter Sheila has become engaged to Gerald Croft.

More noise came from an audience member striding across the creaking dress-circle floorboards to complain of not being able to see inside the Birlings’ Edwardian home. But that is the point. Theirs is an enclosed, blinkered, self-serving world, one that the arrival of Liam Brennan’s Scotsman Goole will open to exposure and cause a stink, like the peeling back of a sardine can.

After sirens and rain and an orchestral swell at the start, as children seek to find a way through the stage curtain to remind us this is the world of theatre at play, the house is revealed, perched, like an oversized doll’s house, on a bombed London street, in Daldry’s nod to Priestley’s play being written in 1945.

Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole: The voice of conscience in An Inspector Calls. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Nearby stands a red telephone box, stripped of its door,  in Ian MacNeil’s still breathtaking design, no matter how many times you may have seen Daldry’s production over the past 30-plus years.

Smug conversation emerges through the windows, dominated by knighthood-seeking, cigar-smoking businessman Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer) and Sheila’s fiancé Gerald (Simon Cotton), an Arthur in the making. Wastrel son Eric (George Rowlands, understudied by Maceo Cortezz on Wednesday), forever disappointing his father, says little.

Outside, urchin children are playing on the shattered street, later joined by “supernumeraries”, haunting figures to match fellow outsider Edna (Frances Campbell), the family servant ignored by all but Sheila (Chloe Orrock), the only one to express regret at what subsequently unfolds. Edna will dutifully, silently, attend to her duties, providing cups of tea and food for Goole too.

Investigating the death of a young woman in poverty, he is the ultimate outsider, exposing something rotten in the state of the Birlings/England. Goole by name, ghoul by nature, the Marley to bilious Arthur Birling’s Ebenezer Scrooge, he is also Priestley’s still prescient prophet on stage (JB foreseeing the need for change in GB that will sweep Labour to power in 1945). The voice of moral conscience, the harbinger in the moonlight, demanding a turning of the tide.

Christine Kavanagh’s self-righteous Sybil Birling. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Like on a doll’s house, the whole of the front of the house suddenly opens, mini-front door et al. In turn, Goole will remove hat, coat and pinstriped suit jacket, even rolling up his sleeves, the more he exposes the arrogant, entitled behaviour of the Birlings and Croft, especially when the monstrous matriarch, Christine Kavanagh’s do-gooding, but does-no-gooding Sybil Birling, makes her grand entry.

Goole delivers one of theatre’s most resonant final speeches: “And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”

It becomes all the more resonant in our strike-ridden, blame-game, divided, dyspeptic disunited kingdom, as Priestley calls for the need to care for each other, for compassion and collective responsibility, but definitely not applied with the insincerity of George Osborne’s “We’re all in this together” mantra of the austerity years.

In her interview, Christine Kavanagh talked of Daldry’s demeanour in the rehearsal room, his sense of humour, mischief and playfulness undimmed after so many years of directing this remarkable piece of theatre. That spirit pours through his cast in this latest tour, and you can be sure the inspector will keep on calling. We need to listen to him, that warning of fire and blood and anguish.

Review by Charles Hutchinson 

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:

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