New approach for Inspector

Keiron PimAn Inspector Calls is a vintage piece of theatre given a thrilling new approach in Stephen Daldry's highly praised production. KEIRON PIM spoke to locally-based actor Louis Hilyer, who plays the Inspector.Keiron Pim

Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls reaches Norwich this March and the revival's timing could hardly be better.

JB Priestley's famous play exposed the emotional poverty of people whose focus is material wealth. Today, with capitalism in crisis and people worldwide facing a stark reappraisal of their financial priorities, the play's ethos seems especially resonant, as lead actor Louis Hilyer explains.

'It's a very interesting, thrilling story. Ultimately it's the message that the Inspector brings: that we are all members of one society and we do not live alone. I don't mean by that we are all rabid socialists but that deep down we all believe we are connected.

'It does seem to have this particular message that Priestley has written. It's a socialist, community, collective message and it does seem to strike a chord.'

It is a play that Louis knows well. The north Suffolk-based actor appeared in the original Daldry production in 1992, playing Gerald Croft, and now returns in the central role, Inspector Goole. The production has been a huge success: it has won more awards than any other play in history, has played to more than two million theatregoers worldwide and is set now to find yet more admirers in its current five-month tour.

'I left the show in 1993 and over the years I kept hearing it was going off on tour again to America or Australia. It's a brilliant production - the best thing I have ever been in, in terms of theatre with thrilling production values.

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'I have been in big Shakespeare productions but this is the one that works for me entirely. I can't think of a moment where it doesn't work. The production values are fantastic. It has taken what was a very old, rather staid play and blown it open.'

Written at the end of the second world war and set in 1912, An Inspector Calls has become a set text for GCSE English Literature students. Daldry's production, which for this tour has been handled by associate director Julian Webber, breathed new life into a staple of 20th century British drama.

It opens with the mysterious Inspector Goole calling unexpectedly on the prosperous Birling family. Their peaceful dinner party is shattered by his investigations into the death of a young woman, Eva Smith, whom each of them has in some way exploited. His revelations shatter their lives and challenge us all to examine our consciences.

'It's the message of the play as much as the production,' says Louis. But the production has brought interesting challenges for the actor, whose CV includes extensive work with the RSC, television work such as Brookside, the Catherine Tate Christmas Special and the Bill, and films including Troy. Having such an impressive set, lighting and special effects, such as the rainfall at the end of the play, mean there is very little room for manoeuvre.

'We only had three weeks, which isn't long at all. It's a bit like being in an opera for an actor. You have to get every moment absolutely spot-on. As Stephen says, it has been directed to within an inch of its life. I think that's appealing because you often don't get directed to within an inch of your life!' In some directors' hands that could be constricting, but in this case 'it's appealing because you are in the hands of someone as brilliant as Stephen'.

After successes including Billy Elliot, The Hours and most recently The Reader, for which Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Oscar at Sunday's Academy Awards, Daldry is now renowned as one of Britain's leading film directors. An Inspector Calls was the show that launched his career, opening at the National Theatre to huge acclaim.

For Louis, the performance in Norwich will be a chance to appear on stage in the part of the country that he now considers home. He and his wife, the actress Matilda Ziegler, and their children Evie, Faye and Herbie, live in the north Suffolk village of Syleham. 'We're very much an acting couple - one of us tends to work and the other looks after the children.'

Matilda is presently starring as Pearl Pratt in the BBC teatime drama Lark Rise to Candleford and was previously perhaps best known for her role as Donna Ludlow in EastEnders in the late 1980s. They moved to Suffolk four years ago.

'I lived in Hackney for 25 years. East Anglia always appealed to me - it's beautiful, and I think people go there because they want to go there, not because they feel that it's somewhere they ought to live, like the West Country. We live right by the Waveney - when it rains I worry and when it's sunny we get the canoes out!

Now in his mid-40s, Louis was a budding actor in his 20s when he first performed in An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre. For all its subsequent accolades, he remembers that it had a slightly inauspicious start.

'The week before, the rain machine had been set up for a production of The Night of the Iguana, which is set in a monsoon… when it came to rain at the end of An Inspector Calls it was sloshing it down. The whole set was flooded, and the front three rows were soaked. All the actors were slipping and crawling around on the cobbles!'

With 4,800 performances to its name now, there's no chance of Daldry's production experiencing similar difficulties this time around. It should prove a captivating and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

An Inspector Calls is at Norwich's Theatre Royal from March 3-7. Box office: 01603 630000 and