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“A Whole New Resonance”: An Interview with Horrible Histories Director Neal Foster

We all love the Terry Deary books, but wouldn’t it be great if you could see your favourite Horrible Histories stories come to life right in front of your eyes? Well… you can! In their third year performing at Hampton Court Palace, where many historical happenings took place, Birmingham Stage Company present their new show, Gorgeous Georgians and Vile Victorians, this bank holiday weekend. We chatted to director and performer Neal Foster ahead of the performance.

Culture Calling: As well as your latest show Gorgeous Georgians and Vile Victorians, you’ve produced a range of Horrible Histories plays including Groovy Greeks and Incredible Invaders, Wicked Warwick and Barmy Britain. What gave you the idea to create this series of history-based theatrical productions?

Neal Foster: The Horrible Histories books are over 25 years-old. They’re one of the biggest book phenomena that broke the mould in teaching and bringing history to children. The writer Terry Deary has a background in acting, theatre, playwriting and songwriting, so I had a feeling they’d really lend themselves to theatre shows. They’ve proved to be fantastic! This is our 13th year of continuous Horrible Histories shows all over the country and the world, and our third year at Hampton Court Palace specifically. We’ve had two fantastic sold out seasons each May the last few years, so this is our hat-trick. Because we’ve previously done the Tudors, the palace was keen for us to introduce people to the other eras that use the palace. That’s why this year we’re presenting Gorgeous Georgians and Vile Victorians.

Image Credit: Historic Royal Palaces

CC: What is it you like about presenting theatre in historic locations such as Hampton Court Palace? What does it add to the performance?

NF: It gives it a whole new resonance which makes it really exciting for us and for the audience. For instance, in our Terrible Tudors play, we talk about how Henry VIII was playing tennis at the Hampton Court Palace when Anne Boleyn’s head was chopped off. So it’s really great to be performing where everything you’re referencing actually happened.

CC: Are there any challenges that come with performing outside at these venues?

NF: It’s not really challenging. It has a very different feel to it, it’s very fun and exciting. But the difference, I suppose, between performing outside and in a theatre, is that outside you can see the audience, and the audience can see each other. So that gives it a different feel – there’s normally quite a party atmosphere when you’re performing outside.

Image Credit: Hampton Court Palace via Facebook

CC: Is the show mainly aimed at children? Or are there elements that adults will enjoy?

NF: It’s definitely a family show, it entertains a whole range of people. Sometimes the adults even enjoy it more than the children!

CC: Birmingham Stage Company has become one of the world’s leading producers of children’s theatre. What attracted you to this genre?

NF: When I first started my company there was no one making children’s theatre on a big stage in Birmingham at the time. So I instantly saw a niche for that. There was also very little children’s theatre touring the country – this was 25 years ago. After our third show a promoter approached us and said it would be really great to tour our work. Those tours became so successful that 7 or 8 years ago, I decided that if we concentrated on children’s theatre we could probably become one of the top companies in the world. And that’s what’s come to pass. As well as our Horrible Histories series, we also produce all the David Walliams shows on tour and we’ve just announced that we’re doing a new tour of Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates for the first time onstage.

CC: There’s been a Horrible Histories series on CBBC - can audiences expect to recognise songs/scenes from TV in your show?

NF: The TV series is wonderful, but it’s a completely separate thing altogether. We take everything we do from the books.

Image Credit: Historic Royal Palaces

CC: As well as directing, you also act in many of Birmingham Stage Company’s performances. Are you performing in this Horrible Histories show?

NF: Yes, I’ve performed every year at Hampton Court Palace and I love it. I’m really looking forward to being back.

CC: Which characters do you play?

NF: We all play multiple characters. I play Queen Victoria, Mrs Dyer the baby farmer, the Duke of Wellington and George III…

CC: Do you have a favourite scene/story told in the show?

We’ve got some new scenes that have never been performed before. There’s a particularly great song about the Georgian Kings that starts the play off, so I think that’s probably my favourite to do at the moment, because it’s brand new and a really fun song.

CC: And finally, what’s the next period of history you’d like to tackle in a Horrible Histories play?

I quite fancy doing the Awful Aztecs, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. I don’t think the Aztecs lived at Hampton Court Palace…

Gorgeous Georgians and Vile Victorians is playing Hampton Court Palace from 26 May – 2 June. You can book tickets on the Historic Royal Palaces website.