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,