Having staged Horrible Histories for 15 years, the Birmingham Stage Company artistic director and actor tells Nick Smurthwaite about the novel approach to reviving the hit shows in lockdown: drive-in performances
Birmingham Stage Company artistic director Neal Foster was quite resigned to waiting until next spring before his record-breaking Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain tour could resume. Then out of the blue he received a call.
Guy Robinson, the founder and chief executive of Coalition Agency, invited him to participate in a bold new initiative in open-air entertainment, aimed at beating the lockdown. It’s called Car Park Party and is inspired by the US concept of drive-in movies, only with live entertainment instead of film. In addition to Barmy Britain, the evening will feature performers from the Comedy Store, and the Massaoke band leading a singalong karaoke session.
From July 9 to August 15 at industrial-sized car parks in Exeter, Henley, Northampton, Birmingham, Newbury, Manchester, Chelmsford and Belfast, audiences will be able to enjoy these acts from the comfort of their own vehicle. Some 300 pre-booked cars will be accommodated at each site – each car 2 metres apart – with ushers on hand to answer questions and provide refreshments.
Robinson has arranged for audio to be transmitted through each individual car radio thanks to special FM licences issued by Ofcom for each site. Apart from toilet breaks (there will be specially installed facilities on-site), it should not be necessary to leave the car all evening.
“It may not be conventional, it may not be ideal, but it will be an event,” says Foster, whose company has been staging Horrible Histories live shows since 2005. So sure is Foster that he can make Barmy Britain work under these unusual constraints that he is already talking to another drive-in company about doing a week of shows later this summer.
He says: “The companies that are likely to survive [lockdown] are the ones that prove to be nimble. Ours is not an expensive show, we can set up quickly and give people a fantastic 70 minutes of entertainment. This really is like going back centuries to when travelling players used to move round the country doing shows on the village green.”
Foster founded BSC in 1992 when he was 26 and managed to persuade Birmingham City Council to let him use the Old Rep Theatre as a base for the company. Although he has produced adult shows such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Speed-the-Plow for BSC, Foster’s reputation has been made by his productions for family audiences, such as Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine, which has toured internationally for 23 years, The Jungle Book and The Borrowers.
By far BSC’s biggest success has been the Horrible Histories live series of shows. The company has staged 15 world premieres, and broken the West End record for the longest-running children’s show with Barmy Britain.
The two actors performing the show – Neal Foster and Morgan Philpott – will be taking the audience through 2,000 years of British history, featuring among others Boudicca, King John, Richard III, Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin and Queen Victoria, who performs a rap. All the costume changes take place on stage as the actors switch from role to role.
The Stage reviewed an earlier version of the show in 2015, saying: “It’s a slick two-hander, immaculately stage-managed, with many nifty costume and props changes. There are jolly songs, mild ribaldry, affectionate patriotism, poo jokes, a bit of audience interaction and an ingenious number of surprising facts. So, for instance, we learn that King John was illiterate and 600 people died of cholera in one Soho Street in 1854.”
Foster is hoping Car Park Party will be imbued with the same kind of spirit as the open-air show they performed at Hampton Court Palace in the summer of 2018 in front of 1,000 people. He recalls: “Twenty minutes before the end of the show, all the electrics failed. We carried on as if nothing had happened, without lights or microphones, doing our own sound effects and shouting to make ourselves heard. The audience loved it. It was the most sensational 20 minutes I’ve ever spent on a stage.”
Compared to some, Foster says lockdown for him personally could have been a lot worse, even though it meant cancelling all existing BSC shows and postponing a tour of The Worst of Barmy Britain, which was about to go out on the road. Everyone involved in the tours was released from their contracts, and his three other administrative workers were put on furlough.
However, because of their freelance status, it wasn’t possible to furlough his long-serving creative team, such as costume designer Jacqueline Trousdale, who has worked with BSC for 25 years, lighting designer Jason Taylor (20 years), and production manager Adrian Littlejohns (15 years).
“I’m trying to keep my team going,” Foster says. “From a business point of view, you could argue that it would be sensible to let people go, but it was always my intention to keep the company small in terms of admin. I always knew something like this could happen and my thinking was that if we stayed small I’d have more chance of looking after the people I’ve got.”
‘My job is to keep us going until the spring. After 28 years of building up the company, this is not the way I want BSC to go out’
Foster goes on: “This is an impossible situation because I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I don’t think there is going to come a time when we can say: ‘There is no Covid anymore.’ It’s a question of how we can manage it. Nobody in our industry knows anything at all about what’s going to happen, how we’re going to restart. Theatres are closing, people I know are losing their jobs, the nature of the collapse is catastrophic. I don’t anticipate things coming good until spring 2021 at the earliest.”
He says the company can keep going financially until next spring, when he is hoping to launch “a major new outdoor project” for London. He says: “I’m hoping it will save us. I was already working on it when lockdown happened. My job is to keep us going until the spring. After 28 years of building up the company, this is not the way I want BSC to go out.”
Foster says he is most concerned for younger actors, technicians and creatives who have just started out. “We had a Zoom chat with the company of Billionaire Boy [one of the BSC tours that had to close]. For four of the cast it was their first job out of drama school. It transpired that a lot of the more established acting talent had found other work – security, delivery, check-out, stacking shelves – but none of the younger ones had other jobs. You got the sense they felt they’d be letting go of the dream. It was just too painful to say to them: ‘You must let go of that dream and start retraining for another career.’ ”
Clearly the drive-in shows will bring in some income, albeit a fraction of the company’s expected turnover for 2020. More importantly it will afford an opportunity for theatre-starved audiences to see some live entertainment, as well as a chance for Foster and Philpott to flex their acting muscles and put their ingenuity to the test. “Our show is normally quite interactive, so we’ve got to make that work with people sitting in their cars. It’s going to be a journey into the unknown for all of us.”
Car Park Party starts at the Henley Festival, Henley on Thames, on July 9 and then tours. For more information visit carparkparty.com