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Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls originally opened at the National Theatre in 1992 and helped reinvent JB Priestley’s text for a modern audience. The production won the 1993 Olivier Award for Best Revival, as well as the 1994 Tony Award for Best Revival after a successful transfer to New York, and it has continued to tour the UK over the past decade.
The production returns to the West End's Playhouse Theatre later this year following an eight month UK tour, and will once again introduce a new audience to both the iconic production and the politically powerful play. Liam Brennan has played the role of Inspector Goole on the UK tour and transfers to the West End with the new cast for a London run. Last seen in the West End in the Mark Rylance/Stephen Fry double bill of Richard III and Twelfth Night, which subsequently transferred to Broadway, Brennan spoke about returning to the role which he has enjoyed playing up and down the country.
“It's still very familiar, we did it for a long time!” he laughs as I ask how familiar it feels to be stepping back into the Inspector's eponymous shoes. “I does come back actually, less quickly than I thought it would because I was invested in another show in between, but it's still easier than learning something from scratch.”
For a play that is a staple of the National Curriculum for children studying GCSE English Literature, the production attracted vast amounts of school groups, and I wondered if Liam had experienced any variations in audience reactions up and down the country.
“It didn't seem like the adult audiences varied that much regionally” he explains, “we played to a lot of schools heavy audiences, so the school kid's reactions seemed to vary a lot depending on the type of school or the age of the kids. We went to Scotland, to Northern Ireland, to Wales. I didn't feel there was a huge different in reaction around the country to be honest. It was more the school kids rather than adults – a lot more laughter, a bit more vocal. It does seem to grip them which is nice."
For many audiences around the UK, and indeed the West End, An Inspector Calls may be their introduction to live theatre, coming to it primarily for an education purpose. I wonder if that sense of responsibility is felt by Liam, being part of a show that has the potential to be many people's very first theatrical experience.
“I hope it's quite exciting” he replies. “I was never at the theatre as a teenager and hopefully I think it's a good thing for young people to see as a show for the first time. I think they get over the period thing quite quickly because of the strength of the story. There are a couple of younger characters that they can relate to in Sheila and Eric. I think one of the strengths of this production is that it does have quite a 'filmic' quality to it, I think for people who haven't seen it before it is genuinely quite exciting. They seem to appreciate that and the spectacular effect at the end. I think they really get into the 'whodunit' aspect of it, the mystery thing of is it the same girl, is he showing them the same photograph and all of that.”
Aside from an education audience the play continues to bring older audiences back to see it time and time again, and there is a comfort for many in the piece's familiarity. Liam asserts that above all the strength of the piece is in Preistley's text and storytelling.
“First and foremost it's a very clever play and a good story” he states. “The fundamental themes are constant – tolerance, looking out for each other, responsibility for people at the bottom of the heap – that's never going to go away. There's a wonderful line where Sheila says towards the end “we must think”, and that's what the Inspector is trying to do, he's trying to get these people to think about the consequences of their actions and that's a theme that's always going to be with us. Someone once said “theatre doesn't change anything but it reminds us that the world is changeable” and I think it fits into that category.”
Daldry's production itself has become synonymous with the title, and for many it's difficult to imagine the play done in a brand new way.
“Although it's carefully constructed superficially every time it does manage to retain a freshness for people that hopefully doesn't seem to go away” he explains. “In some ways it's a radical production I suppose, but I don't think it radically departs from what Priestley was on about. The surprise at the end is great, and the opening sequence does look like a movie on stage, my heart skips a beat every time watching that from the back of the auditorium, with the rain coming down and the little urchins playing around, it's genuinely gripping I think.”
I wonder if Liam finds it difficult to play the deliberately mysterious role of Inspector Goole, who in many ways is a function for each of the other characters to reveal their past misgivings and mistakes.
“It's one of those parts where you have to be a little bit brave”, he responds. “It has been written with a degree of neutrality, there's not a lot to hang your coat on aside from character traits. A lot of the time he's simply asking questions, so I think what you have to do is to try and make him interesting and compelling by bringing a lot of yourself to it. You have to find that confidence that the words on the page plus you are interesting and compelling enough, rather than having to put on metaphorically shuffles or accents, you have to be brave and try and bring your self to it.”
“I always find it helpful to lurk at the back of the stalls, that's where I make my entrance, I find it helpful to listen and watch that first ten minutes. In a way the energy of what's gone on before doesn't matter too much because whatever has been going on his arrival is a shock to the family, so it doesn't almost matter how they respond to him or he to them, because it is shocking rather than a rude 'bolshy' policeman who has invaded a family celebration.”
Priestley's work can often be written off as being too political and too polemical that it runs the risk of isolating modern audiences through its tone.
“I think there's maybe a danger in this play, certainly in the Inspector that it can be a little polemical”, Liam states. “I think hopefully I find a way of not finger wagging at the audience and speaking with them as opposed to at them or to them. I used to work with Mark Rylance a lot when he ran the Globe and he used to say what I thought was a wonderful thing, to talk with the audience rather than at them, and I think there is a way to do that with the audience, there is a gentler, more interesting way of doing that and I think we do succeed on doing that.”
Whilst the production itself may well be a revival of a revival, Liam expects that its West End run will draw a wide audience to the play and help celebrate Priestley's important work, over sixty years since it was first performed.
“I hope we do get a mixture of audiences who appreciate it” he says. “It's a great piece of writing and an exciting thought provoking production.”
An Inspector Calls runs at the Playhouse Theatre in London's West End from 4 November 2016.