Birmingham Stage Company celebrates its 20th anniversary with the adaption of a children's classic, writes Diane Parkes .
When Birmingham Stage Company’s James and the Giant Peach opens in the city this month it is a real milestone – as it marks the 20th birthday of the company.
Based at the Old Rep in Station Street, BSC may have begun as one man’s dream but it has gone on to gain a national and international reputation not just for children’s theatre but also for a range of productions for adults.
With shows ranging from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Roald Dahl’s The Witches, BSC has attracted a roll call of actors including Honor Blackman, Corin Redgrave, Simon Callow and Richard Dreyfuss.
And at its centre is actor/manager Neal Foster – who founded the company when he was just a teenager.
“I started my theatre company when I was 19 but I wanted to do a variety of work and I realised that as an independent company you have to have a specific identity,” he recalls.
“Cheek by Jowl does Shakespeare adaptations, Shared Experience does adaptations etcetera but I wanted to do Chekhov and children’s theatre and new plays and the only way you can produce such a variety of work is to have a venue.
“So for six months I looked up and down the country for a theatre in which to house my company and it was only by chance that I found The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham, my home town.
“It took 12 months to get the council to let me base my company at the theatre before we started in 1992 and our first Christmas show was Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. That was what started our long association with this great writer.
“Fantastic Mr Fox was the first professional Christmas show at the Old Rep for 20 years and yet 17,500 people came to see it, which proved that there was a big demand for high quality children’s theatre.
“Funnily enough I called Roald Dahl when I was 15 to ask him if he would let me interview him at my school. But when the phone was answered I asked to speak to Ronald Dahl and the man on the end of the phone said there was no-one there of that name. When I insisted that this was a Ronald Dahl’s number, he said there was a Roald Dahl living there – would I like to speak to him? Yes, I replied. Speaking, said the man! Little did either of us know that I would end up producing more stories by Roald Dahl than any other company in the world.”
In fact BSC has become very closely linked with Dahl’s stories having created adaptations of a number of his best-sellers including Danny the Champion of the World, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine and James and the Giant Peach.
Neal believes Dahl is irresistible for theatre-makers.
“I think Dahl wrote stories which take the child out of the ordinary and into a fantastic world and yet there is a real grounding to his stories,” he says. “Charlie comes from a working class background and then ends up in the Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. George is just an ordinary boy who creates a medicine which makes his grandmother grow 30ft tall. James is a boy whose parents are killed and he ends up falling into a giant peach and meeting giant insects. They all start from a really ordinary place and then go somewhere amazing.
“From a theatrical point of view, Dahl creates amazing characters like Grandma, Willy Wonka and the BFG. They are all great characters to perform and his stories work extremely well on the stage.”
BSC has also worked with a number of high profile living authors and has staged adaptations of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came and Kensuke’s Kingdom, Phillip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories.
The company has always been drawn to children’s theatre.
“I love children and I love children’s writing,” says Neal.
“A lot of children’s writing has really interesting characters. The writing and the characters are very challenging and so too are the audiences.
“Whereas adults go to sleep if they are bored, children will quickly let you know if they lose interest. Keeping that interest and keeping them engaged is difficult but very rewarding because they are so giving as an audience.
“They often respond in a way that you don’t anticipate and you never cease to underestimate their sophistication and what they will find interesting. You can never guess what direction they will want to go in when you tell the story. That is why children’s theatre is so exciting.”
Horrible Histories proved to be a huge success for the company whose productions have included Vile Victorians, Terrible Tudors, Awful Egyptians, Ruthless Romans, Frightful First World War and Woeful Second World War. BSC’s Barmy Britain, a lively dash through UK history, has become the longest running children’s show in West End history.
Neal admits adapting Terry Deary’s hugely popular series has been keeping the company well occupied.
“At the moment we are busy with Horrible Histories and James and the Giant Peach but we will always be looking for what might be the next big thing in three or four years’ time.
“We keep our eyes and ears open and we are also in a position now where people are offering things to us, asking us ‘would we look at this TV series or this book and think about putting it on stage’. “
James and the Giant Peach, which opened this week, premieres in Birmingham before touring the UK. And Neal is determined to ensure it is another success for the company.
“For James and the Giant Peach we have brought in a top notch creative team. Nikolai Foster is a highly respected director but has not directed a children’s show before, as we don’t just go for people who have made their names in children’s theatre. He has brought with him Grant Olding to create the music. Grant created the music for the National Theatre’s production of One Man,
Two Guvnors. We also have Seb Frost, a top sound designer, and Colin Richmond who is a great set designer.
“It is the first book that Roald Dahl wrote and it is very imaginative. David Wood has adapted it so that the insects are telling the story with James. Nickolai and his creative team have imagined that the insects have actually created the whole show, in a kind of Heath Robinson way.
“It looks absolutely beautiful and we have a fantastic cast of actor/musicians, so the actors are creating the story and all of the music. It will be a real theatrical celebration.”
With 20 years now behind BSC, where would Neal envisage the company going in the next two decades?
“I’d like the next 20 years to continue to give me the same opportunities to work with great writing and great people in really good theatres with fantastic actors. It is less about getting bigger and more about making sure you are still excited about what you are doing,” he says.
“We are producing five different Christmas shows this Christmas and that is probably as much as I’d ever want to do.
“I don’t want to end up running a bigger operation because then I would end up being a manager and supervising a lot of people and getting them to do creative things whereas I like to be at the heart of the creative process. There are only four of us in the office and I want to keep it that way.
“And our international work is growing because we are being invited to travel to different countries across the world.
“More and more people are contacting us and asking for our shows. The list so far includes New York, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Syria, Malta, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.
“We have been extremely lucky because I’d say we’ve been involved with something amazing every year since we started. So if I named highlights there would probably be 20 shows.
“But our production of David Almond’s Skellig going to New York and our adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book have been very important for us.
“We did Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter recently, it has been very special working with Michael Morpurgo and Barmy Britain has been a joyous success.
“For adults I would say highlights have been Paul Lucas’ The Dice House, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and David Auburn’s Proof.”
It may have been partly luck that gave rise to Birmingham Stage Company being Birmingham Stage Company but now firmly based in his home city, Neal has no plans to move.
“It was sheer good fortune that brought my company to Birmingham. My love of the city is not just because I was born here, but because I was introduced to the Old Rep Theatre.
“Of all the theatres I have performed in the world, the Old Rep is still my favourite, not least because of its associations with Sir Derek Jacobi and Paul Scofield who performed there and became our patrons.
“There is a long historical association between us and the theatre and the people who have performed in it.
“The Old Rep is the lynchpin.
“It is great to know that your company and your business are promoting the city that gave you the start in life.
“It feels very natural – the fact that I am from Birmingham and am running a company called Birmingham Stage Company. That’s what I call perfect synergy.”
* Birmingham Stage Company’s James and the Giant Peach plays the Old Rep Theatre, Station Street, from November 14 to February 2. For tickets contact 0121 245 4455 and www.birmingham-box.co.uk