The Birmingham Stage Comapany, one of the world’s leading producers of theatre for children, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Susan Elkin met up with its founder Neal Foster

We meet in his theatreland London office, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus and not much further from the Garrick Theatre where Gangsta Granny is to enjoy a full-blown season in August. That will be Birmingham Stage Company’s first proper West End outing.

I’m gazing at the exhausting (and perhaps exhaustive) whiteboard tour schedule for Awful Auntie as three of Neal Foster’s staff busily make phone calls about venues and accommodation. This is a hub off frenetic activity. Then Neal arrives, fresh faced, linen trousered and slightly flustered because there’d been a mix up over the appointment time and he was busy auditioning when I got there. He makes tea and leads me, chatting merrily and padding along in his jolly striped socks to a meeting room where we can talk.

It’s an odd interview for me because I have reviewed Horrible Histories so many times and seen Neal on stage – and he regards himself as actor first and producer second – so often that I feel I already know him. Except of course, that I don’t. He isn’t wearing a wig, a Tudor hat or a crown today, for instance.

Neal founded Birmingham Stage Company twenty-five years ago. It has produced many shows for adults but in recent years has specialised in work for children including Skellig, more Roald Dahl adaptations than any other company, shows based on David Walliams’s novels and of course Horrible Histories, originally written by Terry Deary.

“Yes, I’ve always wanted to be an actor” he says, “even at five years old I was serious about it”. He then leaps to his feet to demonstrate his best knee bending, truncheon wielding policeman act. “I was playing the policeman, singing my song, guarding the baby Jesus in the nativity play, which was obviously a serious responsibility – but the audience laughed so I was annoyed.” A few years later he did a sketch in a show with the actual headmaster of his school. “I was a pith helmeted angry parent from the Raj and I had to keep hitting him so there was a lovely frisson in that. And I heard waves of adult laughter and discovered its power.

Senior school brought plenty more opportunity. “I was at Clifton College in Bristol which has its own theatre and I took part in seventeen plays” he says also remembering a light bulb moment when he was taken to see The Cherry Orchard at Bath. “That moment when the string breaks – I thought it was intellectually intriguing and that I ought to go to university to study plays rather than to drama school.”

It was a mistake. Apart from one class the course was very dull and Neal stayed at Warwick only seven weeks. “I applied for nine drama schools and got a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to start the following year (September 1984) but there was a gap so I started a company with a girl I’d met at National Youth Theatre mainly to get an Equity card. We did a new play about DH Lawrence in Nottingham and one about Jane Austen in Hampshire. We hadn’t got a clue what we were doing but somehow it worked. We got a hundred people to see the Austen play one night.”

Encouraged by Chris Denys, then BOVTS principal, to keep the company going even while training, Neal did just that. He then got six months’ rep work as an actor at Basingstoke immediately after drama school: Noises Off, The Cherry Orchard, Fantastic Mr Fox and Hamlet.

Birmingham Stage Company as it exists today was born when Neal approached thirteen actors and writers and persuaded them to let him interview them on stage at The Young Vic and the Playhouse Theatre as a way of raising funds. “I stood outside stage doors until they arrived for their shows and simply asked them” says Neal, whose eventual list included Alan Bennett, Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Michael Frayn, Dustin Hoffman, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen and Peter O’Toole. “It’s a huge credit to the industry that they were all so willing to help and – with the media coverage we got – it ensured some real status for the company”

He started with The Seagull and soon needed a base. “The Old Rep in Birmingham was being used by amateurs for only five months per year and I persuaded the council to let me have it for the rest of the time.” Today the company is based at The Alexandra Theatre because the council has now handed the Old Rep over to Ormiston Academy. “And we didn’t see eye to eye” says Neal, adding that it was time to move on anyway. He quotes Peter Brook’s maxim “Hold on tightly. Let go lightly”

Back in the late 1980s the first commercially successful production was Fantastic Mr Fox over Christmas followed by an artistically acclaimed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “To stay afloat you have to balance shows which make money and shows which are critically admired” he says, adding that he was very lucky because Richard Dreyfuss came to direct Hamlet and Jonathan Church The Crucible.

George’s Marvellous Medicine was a major turning point. “A colleague suggested that we tour it and volunteered to get us some bookings. In the event, we toured for 10 weeks and made fifty thousand pounds. It changed our way of working, showed us the way forward and is probably the reason we’re still here today celebrating our 25th anniversary” Neal says. “We still tour that show too!”

Horrible Histories changed the company too. There have so far been fifteen different shows. “I love history” says Neal, telling me he reads a lot of biographies on the look out for quirky ways into it. “For instance, I’ve just read that the nearly toothless Bishop of London volunteered to have a tooth pulled in front of the terrified Queen Elizabeth to demonstrate that it didn’t hurt. That’s my sketch almost written” he says entertainingly, miming the pulling and the protestations.

“Queen Elizabeth had terrible teeth because of the sugar she ate and this is a good way into that era.” Neal argues that there is nothing dumbed down about this approach. Stories are crucial and snooty historians who accuse him of trivialising are missing the point. He also thinks that we need to think very carefully about the purpose of education. “Yes, primary children need to learn the basics, but once they get to secondary school we need to teach them how to learn, to make them want to learn and to convince them that learning is fun. The details of the specific knowledge they acquire in order to achieve that are irrelevant.”

“To stay afloat you have to balance shows which make money and shows which are critically admired”

He continues: “It’s about getting them interested in knowledge and using it with creativity and imagination. That’s why theatre matters”. So does humour. Describing Horrible Histories as “Monty Python meets history” and recalling his own inspirational comic influences: Morecome and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper, Buster Keaton and more he says “There’s much less of that knock about comedy today.” Neal regards lack of a sense of humour as a serious disability and cites a major international politician – “no finesse – just reductive policies” – as an example

Inevitably we then discuss schools and why some seem to teach the arts extensively and others don’t. The National Curriculum seems to be open to a range of interpretations. “Cutting arts down within, or out of, the curriculum is the path chosen by people who don’t understand” declares Neal. “Theatre and the arts broaden both mind and body. It’s about finding a voice”.

So is he a religious man? “Not remotely” he says. “We’re animals here for a very short time. There is no meaning of life apart from living it, but we should be as kind to, and understanding of, each other as possible. And drama is at the core of that.”

Neal loves children but has none of his own and has never wanted any. “I think it’s because at heart I’m still a child myself” he grins. “You can do the work we do only by respecting the children who come to our shows. We never patronise or belittle. Some shows for children are really just to please the adults who buy the tickets”.

He mentions Skellig, which poses some very challenging questions and features an angel or Gangsta Granny which pulls no punches because she dies.

Soon it’s time for Neal to get back to auditioning potential cast members for Gangsta Granny. “I’m lucky. I can hire talented young unknowns who are right for the part” says Neal. “In our shows it’s the writer who is the star”. Then, just before I scamper off to my next appointment he tells me that he is about to do a deal with another major writer for a new show. He carelessly (or was it deliberate?) drops a female pronoun but otherwise it’s still intriguingly all under wraps. Neal Foster is hard to hold down.

Gangsta Granny runs at Garrick Theatre (evenings) 26 July- 03 September

Horrible Histories: More Best of Barmy Britain is at Garrick Theatre (day times) 4 August – 2 September

Awful Auntie opens at Capitol, Horsham on 21 September and then tours nationwide until December 2018.