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Photo of Christine Kavanagh, Jeff Harmer, Lianne Harvey in 'An Inspector Calls' Tour
Christine Kavanagh, Jeff Harmer, Lianne Harvey in 'An Inspector Calls' Tour 2018 -19 (Credit: Mark Douet)

Interview: Jeff Harmer of ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Back in December 2018, I had the pleasure of seeing An Inspector Calls during the first leg of its American tour in Washington, D.C. I gave it a very positive review. Following a well-deserved winter holiday, the U.K. cast and production team return for the next leg of the tour: stopping at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles from January 22 – February 10. In this exclusive West Coast engagement, audiences will have an opportunity to see this thrilling production as directed by Stephen Daldry (The Crown). The play begins as Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) arrives at the Birling residence and upends their position of power and privilege with his lines of inquiry on an investigation. I recently interviewed actor Jeff Harmer, who plays the role of Arthur Birling, the head of the household.

Is there a previous acting role in your career that you enjoy looking back on?

Last year, I was asked to play the leading role of Richard Willey, a politician in a farce called Out of Order by Ray Cooney. The lead actor was taken ill, so I was called in at the last minute. I had about eight hours rehearsal, but the play was so funny and the audiences laughed so much that it was a joy. We toured the U.K. for the next 15 weeks.

Have you been to any of the U.S. cities on this tour before?

No. I’ve only visited New York. And that was 20 years ago for just five days holiday. So this is a very exciting job for me.

Photo of Liam Brennan and cast members in 'An Inspector Calls'
Liam Brennan and Company in ‘An Inspector Calls’ Tour 2018 -19 (Credit: Mark Douet)

When you go to a new theatre, does the cast need to rehearse again to get a feel for the new space?

Yes. We have a line rehearsal in England before we fly out. Then, when we get to the theatre in LA, a technical rehearsal and a Dress rehearsal.

There’s a really amazing sequence at the start of the play. Are you inside the house already when that’s happening?

We certainly are. None of the main actors have actually seen ‘live’ what’s happening on stage at the beginning, because we’re in such an enclosed space that we can’t really see out of. We take our cues from the music. It was astonishing to see how busy it was on stage at the beginning when I saw the opening on video footage.

The house seems almost like another character or at least a full-fledged entity in what it represents. What was it like incorporating that into your performance?

The producers are very aware of the technical difficulties of acting with the house and the set as a whole. So, about a week before we first opened in York [in England,] they sent us all down to Cardiff in Wales, where a set was constructed just for us to get the feel of what it was like. The most difficult bit is putting the house back together at the end. We have to time everything we do with each specific line.

What’s your own view of Mr. Birling after getting inside this character for so many months?

Mm, good question. He has always been a difficult character to empathise with because he’s so blinkered and thinks he knows it all. I was in the army for four years, I’ve met Sergeants like him! And I can see why Priestly wrote him like this and why he gets the first interview with the Inspector. He sets the general tone of the family’s attitude towards the lower classes from the beginning very forcefully and the Inspector makes him look foolish from the off. He’s fun to play, but I don’t think he’s a very likable character.

Photo of actor Jeff Harmer from 'An Inspector Calls' Tour
Jeff Harmer from ‘An Inspector Calls’ Tour 2018 -19 (Credit: Mark Douet)

To me, executing this play successfully depends a lot on the tension and momentum that the cast builds on as the events unfold. How did you get to what you felt was the right balance?

The script is so rich that as long as we are energised and precise, the tension builds itself. The challenge with this piece is to keep the pace of the lines fast, without gabbling. Having said that, in the last 20 minutes of the play we are directed to fire out every line as fast as possible as we reach the climax.

Who would you vote as the toughest adversary of the Inspector: Mr. Birling or Mrs. Birling?

Oh, without a doubt, Mrs. Birling! Mr. Birling married above himself into the upper classes. Mr. Birling is full of bluster, while Mrs. Birling is an Ice Queen. She gives no sway to the Inspector. If I may quote from the play:

Mr. Birling: Now look Inspector, you’re not telling us now, that … that MY BOY is mixed up in this?

Mrs. Birling: I don’t believe it. I WON’T BELIEVE IT!

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the play?

I’d just like to say that it’s very exciting and a great honour for the cast and production team to bring this great play to America. We loved playing Washington. The audiences and the in-house staff at the theatre were great. We’re all so looking forward to coming back!

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, and Mark Rylance. Pat particularly enjoyed interviewing Lawrence Gowan of Styx, Ndaba Mandela, and Sir Derek Jacobi & Richard Clifford.

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