Two decades ago Neal Foster started a small theatre company in the Midlands, performing new plays in village halls. Fast forward 20 years and that company has risen through the theatrical ranks to perform more than 70 productions across the world for adults and children alike, finding fame for its hugely successful stage adaptations of Horrible Histories and bringing to life some of Roald Dahl’s most-loved stories in magical productions that have introduced new generations to the world of live performance.
To celebrate 20 years of producing its eclectic repertoire of critically acclaimed and publicly loved productions from Shakespearean classics to modern children’s favourites, starring everyone from Stephen Mangan to Simon Callow, Foster exclusively revealed to Official London Theatre 10 highlights from the company’s fascinating history.
1. I went to Warwick University to study drama but left after seven weeks and set up a small theatre company which produced two newly commissioned plays in village halls about D.H. Lawrence and Jane Austen. I was somewhat naïve about how it all worked, we would put the posters up in the afternoon and wait for people to come that evening. Bizarrely, we never had to cancel a show!
Having founded this small theatre company, I realised that if I wanted to keep producing a mixture of work, I needed a theatre in which it could be based. I looked at several unused venues around the country until I came across The Old Rep theatre in Birmingham, the original home of the Birmingham Rep. The theatre had been built in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson, one of the most overlooked figures in theatre history and I slowly fell in love with it. Since 1971 it had only been used for five months of the year by amateur companies. It took a year to get Birmingham City Council to agree to let us move in and take up the slots not being used by the amateur societies, but in September 1992 the Lord of Mayor of Birmingham re-opened the theatre and we, Birmingham Stage Company [BSB], performed our first show by Terence Rattigan.
2. In order to raise the initial money for the company, I asked 13 actors and writers to let me interview them on stage at the Young Vic and the Playhouse theatre in front of a paying audience. I simply stood outside various stage doors until they arrived for their show. The people who agreed to help included Alan Bennett, Glenn Close, Dame Judi Dench, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Frayn, Dustin Hoffman, Sir Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Sir Ian McKellen and Peter O’Toole. It was a wonderful example of how people at the top of the profession are more than ready to help people at the beginning of their careers.
3. The Old Rep hadn’t had a professional production for 20 years, so it was a shock when 17,500 people came to see our first Christmas show, Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It was the start of a long love affair with Roald Dahl’s work, which happily continues to this day with our production of James And The Giant Peach now running Birmingham prior to a national tour. In fact, we’ve produced more productions by Dahl than any other company in the world.
4. Our first anniversary show was Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in 1993. We had managed to assemble a stunning cast and the show was seen by our patron Paul Scofield and his wife Joy. We knew something very special had happened with that production and it cemented a wonderful relationship we were to have with Paul and Joy who became fantastic supporters of the company and The Old Rep. Could any actor wish more than having Paul Scofield in his life?
5. When we staged our production of The Borrowers in 1996, I asked the BBC if any of their props were available from the TV series. They told me it was all being stored at Pinewood Studios and that if I took everything, I could have the lot! It took three articulated lorries to carry it all from Pinewood to Birmingham, including the entire miniature village of Little Hampton!
6. We made our debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow in 1999. None of us had ever been to the festival before so had no idea what to expect and when three of the most important papers gave the show five stars within three days of opening, I thought this was how it usually worked! We have tended to do a lot of American work as I love the visceral quality of American writing and while we were performing The Crucible we were even invited to Arthur Miller’s 80th birthday party.
7. David Almond’s play Skellig was the first show to take us to America, where we performed at the New Victory theatre on 42nd Street in 2011. Skellig was a life changing role as it reflected my own personal struggle at the time and for the six months we toured life and art intertwined in a way I’d not experienced before. It was hugely cathartic and demonstrated the power of theatre both for those of us performing the show and those who saw it.
BSC has since been lucky enough to perform in Dubai, Syria, Hong Kong, Singapore and have recently been invited to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Our foreign trips have always been thrilling because of the audience reaction, particularly in those parts of the world where theatre is less available. I remember performing to an Indian school who had never been to the theatre before; I will never forget the experience, it was like being drenched in joy. I feel very lucky to be involved in an art form that can’t be replicated by digital technology, so I am a strong opponent to broadcasting shows around the world. What we do depends on a three-way conversation between the actor, his fellow actor and the audience. If neither the actor nor the audience can react directly to actors, it isn’t theatre and no-one should pretend it is.
8. In 2002 we launched The Dice House, a new play written by Paul Lucas inspired by the cult American novel by Luke Rhinehart. I went to New York to meet Luke and his wife Ann and fell in love with them both; it’s amazing how many extraordinary people I’ve met through the company. The play first opened at the Old Red Lion theatre, travelled up to the Edinburgh Festival and then moved to the Arts theatre. In the spirit of the play, I had the idea of allowing people to buy tickets by rolling a dice, which means in London the audience could get in for anything between £6 and £36. It doesn’t make any difference to your income, the average ticket price will always be £21!
9. We hadn’t had an awful lot of luck with Shakespeare until we staged Twelfth Night in 2010. It featured a great cast including Morgan Philpott who was Sir Toby to my Sir Andrew. I couldn’t quite believe that a double act created by a writer in Elizabethan times could be so enjoyable for two actors in 2010 and get such a response from a 21st century audience. It’s quite something to tell a joke written in 1601 and get a huge laugh in 2010.
10. Some years ago we rang the amazing Terry Deary and asked if he would be interested in adapting his ground-breaking series of books Horrible Histories for the stage. Since then we have produced nine world premieres of Horrible Histories with Terry including Barmy Britain which opened at the Garrick theatre in February and has become the longest running children’s show in West End history. It’s been a fantastically creative process as I have co-written, directed and am now acting in the show. Barmy Britain will be the show we take to The Old Rep to celebrate our 21st birthday next year.