Birmingham Stage Company's actor-manager Neal Foster tells Terry Grimley why he has fallen in love with the city's historic Old Rep theatre all over again
When Birmingham Stage Company put on David Auburn's play Proof at the Old Rep last month, it looked like a risky venture.
Though the company regularly packs out Sir Barry Jackson's old theatre with its annual Christmas shows, this was its first adult production in the city since Romeo and Juliet in 2002, and with the decision to go ahead taken relatively late, there wasn't that much time to drum up an audience.
As it turned out, BSC's actor manager Neal Foster, a member of the cast of four, found the experience was something of a revelation.
"I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed being at the Old Rep," he says. "It's a building that, to use a modern term, was really fit for purpose: it works for actors, works for the audience, and works for the relationship between the two.
"We knew it was going to be a tough slog to sell a play nobody knew. So I was really bowled over in the last week when it got really good audiences, and they absolutely loved it. I think it must be getting rarer and rarer to be able to see something that just works, that's interesting, funny, intelligent, dealing with all sorts of issues.
"There seems to be a lack of plays that have that kind of quality. Everything about it was really quite joyous."
Proof was directed by John Harrison, who actually ran this theatre in the early 1960s and directed stars like Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie there. Foster says that Harrison, now 82, was phoning every other day to see how it was going.
"What was interesting for me was that it came in my 40th year and it kind of made sense of the last 14 years. So if we can have another 14 years like it, that would be brilliant
"Already John and I are talking about doing a Shakespeare play at the Old Rep. He worked with Peter Brook there and at Stratford as an actor, so I'm going to take his word for it that he knows how to do it. I'd like to do it next year, but if not definitely the year after."
Not for the first time, Foster is frustrated by the neglect of a theatre which, in the scale of its stage and auditorium, bridges the wide gap between the new Rep's two spaces.
"This has been the whole problem with Birmingham for us. Going back to when Anthony Sargent was head of arts at the council there was supposed to be a need for a middle-scale venue. I don't know why they just can't get to grips with the fact that they have a middle-scale venue, if they treat it properly, and it's called the Old Rep.
"It's one of the best middle-scale theatres in the country. Really it's beyond comprehension how the council has not taken that on board."
Meanwhile this year's Christmas show, Danny the Champion of the World, opens in two weeks. It renews Birmingham Stage Company's fruitful relationship with the works of Roald Dahl, but for once this isn't actually a BSC production but a re-staging of the successful adaptation by David Wood, staged by the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.
"It's BSC presenting the Sherman production," explains Foster. "It's a remake of a production they did. I went to see it at the Sherman and asked if we could tour it. The Dahl estate was so happy with it. It's not something we've done before, and as soon as we became a presenting company a lot of shows have been offered to us, but I don't want to go down that road. I couldn't see a good reason for not going ahead with a production that was already working very effectively.
"One of the hallmarks of this particular production is that it has probably the best audience participation I have seen. It's always been one of my favourite stories. When I read it at the age of about nine I absolutely fell in love with it. I know from audience sales it's something that people want to see."
Already more than 40,000 tickets have been sold from a possible capacity of 43,000, or 48,000 if the run is extended.
"I don't think it will do as well as Jungle Book, which sold 46,000 in Birmingham. Even more successful was James and the Giant Peach, which did 48,000 and we had to move it to the Alex, but that didn't do very well on tour."
Danny will then tour for two years, joining BSC's other touring shows George's Marvellous Medicine, which will be visiting Malta in the next month, and Kensuke's Kingdom, which it seems may be going to Dubai.
Other plans for the company include two new instalments of Horrible Histories, which will visit the Alexandra Theatre in April, and a possible revival of Githa Sowerby's 1913 play Rutherford and Son – "a Yorkshire play which I absolutely love – a rarely performed gem," says Foster.
With minimal subsidy and 97 per cent of its income coming from the box office, BSC operates in an environment where it has to deliver what theatre people want to pay to see. The advance sales for Danny, says Foster, show that they expect the company to give them a good time.
"People don't expect theatre to connect with them any more in a genuinely moving way. They are surprised when theatre is good now rather than the other way. I always thought the only crisis in theatre was because there's bad theatre. It's just that bad theatre drives people away and good theatre attracts them."
Danny the Champion of the World is at the Old Rep, Station Street, from November 14 to January 27 (Box office: 0121 616 1519/202 5000/303 2323).