Horrible way to learn

Horrible Histories stars Neal Foster and Alison Fitzjohn. Photos: Jane Hobson
Horrible Histories stars Neal Foster and Alison Fitzjohn. Photos: Jane Hobson

The secret to a popular children’s stage show? Make it funny, Horrible Histories actor and director Neal Foster tells Shane Gilchrist.

Neal Foster, the creator of a stage show based on the popular children’s books Horrible Histories, believes laughter can often lead to learning.

"I remember John Cleese saying to me that the benefit of laughter is people only do so when they understand something. And if they are laughing then they are also probably remembering what they have understood.

"I like to call it learning by accident," the director and actor explains via phone from his home in England as he prepares to bring the latest theatrical incarnation of Horrible Histories to New Zealand next month.

Titled Horrible Histories: the best of Barmy Britain, the new show features a range of sketches, including Queen Boudicca  taking on the Romans, a cruel King John, a plague sweeping across the land, Henry VIII lopping off heads, Parliament being attacked by Guy Fawkes and highwayman Dick Turpin’s attempts at a get-rich-quick scheme.

The show, which runs for around an hour and 15 minutes and involves two actors being on stage the entire time, requires plenty of stamina, Foster says.

He should know — he’s one of the actors (the other is Alison Fitzjohn).

"There are no breaks. It is very full-on from beginning to end. I think that energy is what makes it so popular.

"I think there is this myth going around that children can’t concentrate for long. Well, that might be true if they are watching some rubbish on television or at the cinema, but if you give children something interesting to watch ...

"I think children can deal with much more complex themes and issues than we give them credit for."

Foster went to Warwick University to study drama but left after seven weeks and set up the  Birmingham Stage Company more than 25 years ago. Having completed several productions, he made the career-defining decision to contact Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, who also has a background in theatre.

"We started the stage show in 2005 and a television show started in 2009. In fact, the producers of the TV series told us that they weren’t planning to do any songs until they witnessed how effective they were in the stage versions.

"It has evolved from books, to the stage, to television and to film. It has gone through every medium."

Foster has also been involved in other collaborations with authors. His most notable recent partnership involves best-selling writer, comedian, actor and presenter David Walliams.

The result was the 2015 world premiere of the stage show based on Walliams’ top-selling book Gangsta Granny. The production, which has been touring the UK for two years, recently made its West End premiere. Barmy Britain, now the longest running children’s theatrical production in West End history, is about to return for a sixth year following its debut there in 2012.

Foster says the show has changed only slightly over the years.

"Sure, it has developed a few different gags as it has gone through the hands of different actors over the years.

"But one of the first scenes written for Barmy Britain, revolving around Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, still works in exactly the same way. It was written by Terry and remains one of our best.

"Each story has its own characters and themes — be they nasty or funny or crazy or rude or scary. There are lots of props, but the show is very simple in its setting."

That means it is easy to tour.

"We have performed at the Sydney Opera House as well as in small schools. It is really all about the power of an actor to communicate with another actor — as well as with the audience.

"It is very much in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, or Morecambe  and Wise or The Two Ronnies in that it is about two people having fun. Therefore it doesn’t matter what stage you’re on.

"We have performed all over the Middle East and the reception has been just as strong there.

"I remember performing in Bahrain, which is ruled by a monarchy that doesn’t like people expressing full and candid views. There was one scene involving Guy Fawkes, who talks about blowing up the king. I directed that right at the minister for education, who was in the front row. He took it in good spirits.

"We have never been asked to change our material."


See it

• Live Nation & Birmingham Stage Company presents Horrible Histories: the best of Barmy Britain, Civic Theatre, Invercargill, October 12; Town Hall, Dunedin, October 15 (shows at 11am).

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