By Grace Moore
Having won a multitude of awards and thrilled 4 million people across the globe, Stephen Daldry's revival of the classic play An Inspector Calls makes its much anticipated return to the West End.
We caught up with cast members Liam Brennan, who plays the mysterious Inspector Goole, and Carmela Corbett, the naive and privileged Sheila Birling, to unravel the mystery of the play's success, the artistic challenges of their roles and the place of the narrative in the UK's current political landscape.
Liam Brennan and Carmela Corbett
Tell us a bit about your character. What's the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
Liam: I present myself to this family of an evening when they're having a celebration as a police inspector. I then proceed over the course of an hour and 45 minutes to turn their lives upside down and give them a very different evening to the one they expected. There's a lot of surprises, I think. There's an inbuilt running mystery as to whether what I'm saying is truthful or not. And I have separate encounters with each of the family members which for various different reasons they don't all hear each other's encounters and there's a lot of mystery and fun in that.
Carmela: Sheila starts off as a very sheltered and spoilt, and she's definitely being treated as if she was a child. Through the course of the play discovers her own womanhood and her own conscience and she comes into her full self. The challenges, which is something we spent a lot of time talking about in rehearsal, is that she has to make so many discoveries throughout the course of the play. So I think the challenge is taking all those discoveries in and then making sure I'm where I'm meant to be by the end of the play so that I can have made that full journey.
Hamish Riddle and Carmela Corbett
An Inspector Calls is the longest running revival of a play in history. Liam, having also played the Inspector in the most recent tour, what do you think is the secret to its success?
Liam: I think it's a great story. I think one of the main interesting things, I don't know how that will be in the West End, but on tour we played to thousands of school children in matinees and I don't ever remember having a rowdy audience of kids that we didn't seem to grab and engage. So yeah, I think it's just a really clever and accessible story that leaves people asking questions. It doesn't tie up all the loose ends, we don't really finally get to find out who or what the inspector is so certainly if people haven't seen it before there's a lot of meat for discussion afterwards.
The play was initially performed in the USSR, but how do you think Priestley's work engages with the modern political landscape of the UK?
Carmela: I remember on our first day of rehearsal, I believe it was Stephen [Director] or Julian [Associate Director] that said that 'what keeps bringing the audience back is that it hasn't lost its relevance'. It seems very relevant today, our society seems to be more and more 'have and have-nots' and that's what this play is addressing. Asking what is our collective responsibility? Do we have a collective responsibility?
Liam: I think the basic theme or flavour of the play is a basic plea for tolerance, for understanding, for looking after each other - that's as political as anything and that's never gonna go away. You either believe in it or you don't.
What do you hope people will take away from the play?
Liam: It's no-ones place to lecture or nag anyone, actors least of all. The inspector has a speech at the end which is very much a plea for tolerance. It's not that you're hectoring or lecturing anyone and I try and deliver that speech as gently as I possibly can because I like to think of it as I'm speaking with the audience as opposed to to them or at them. I'm speaking to myself as much as anyone else. So I just hope it reminds people that we need to take care of each other...
Carmela: ...and to take the time to think. Something I thought of through doing this is it's never too late to change. It would be lovely to think that you can walk away from this play and think I can adapt my attitude and have a better awareness.
Liam Brennan and Carmela Corbett
How does an Inspector Calls compare to other plays you have worked on?
Liam: Every job is its own experience. It's different working on a classic piece as opposed to a piece of new writing. The problems are slightly different, you know you're in something which has stood the test of time which gives you a sense of responsibility. You're not chopping and changing with the writer in the room as you are with a piece of new writing. I think for me every experience is completely different.
Carmela: The thing that sets this show apart is it's such a physical and specific and choreographed show in many ways. So in that respect sometimes it reminds me more of a farce or a heightened comedy in that it's so specific however, of course, this couldn't be more different to a comedic farce.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
Carmela: I'm more recently out of school and what I've learnt so far is there seems to be no one way to do it. For me, going to drama school was awesome because it gave me a foundation but so many amazing people don't go to drama school. So it's really whatever works for you, there's no one right path.
Why did you want to be involved in this production?
Liam: Because I read the play. I'd been aware of the black and white movie, and seen the various TV adaptations and I remember it was probably one of the first things I read or saw as a kid, a piece of drama that really intrigued me. So I just wanted to be part of it, in one of its carnations.
Carmela: Just second what Liam said. An amazing opportunity to work on an amazing piece of writing of such an acclaimed production and to be in the West End!
The full company of An Inspector Calls in character
What is going to surprise people about this show?
Liam: If they haven't seen this production before, it has a very different feel and flavour to it to certainly the old black and white movie and TV versions that I've seen. I think there's quite a lot of surprising things in it but I think the basic angle is very different. So hopefully they'll find it a refreshing adaptation.
Carmela: I'll be intrigued to hear and see and be with an audience! I don't know what that quite feels like yet. I will say from my limited experience and having seen the set, it is visually extraordinary, with the sound design and everything. It's exciting!
Finally, how would you describe the play in 3 words?
Liam: Exciting, intriguing and enjoyable.
Carmela: Ultimate family drama.
An Inspector Calls plays at the Playhouse Theatre from 4th November.