“We don’t approach it any differently than with adult theatre. There does need to be absolute clarity, so they get it… But I think we underestimate children constantly.” Director/actor Neal Foster suggests there’s few differences between grown-up and children’s audiences. If anything, the latter are more willing to let go and buy into the make-believe of it all.
Youngsters are often more sophisticated than we appreciate, and often capable of dealing with difficult, complex subjects. Like the peculiar development of the modern British Christmas. As the founder of The Birmingham Stage Company, Foster is about to set off around the country with the latest live instalment of the massively popular Horrible Histories franchise. Calling in at Theatre Royal Brighton on Sat 16 Dec and Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion on Fri 22 Dec, Horrible Christmas encourages audiences to examine the impact of Victorian villains, Mediaeval monks, Puritan party-poopers and Tudor kings upon the most celebrated holiday in western civilisation.
The production’s roots can be traced back to 2013, when the company did a version of Horrible Christmas at Derby Theatre – which proved a much bigger success than anyone anticipated. It’s different in style and pace from all the other Horrible Histories shows, which tend to gleefully reevaluate the unsavoury actions of notorious characters from the past. Instead, the festive show is inarguably moving, as it takes audiences through the pivotal moments which moulded our contemporary outlook on the festive season.
“Part of the personal journey I’ve been on is the discovery of so many things we take for granted,” Foster tells me. “You accept that’s how it works; but that’s because someone decided to do something and that became accepted.” The show’s narrative follows Sidney Claus; a rather angry chap who hates Christmas because it’s associated with a bad experience. On a mission to stop it forever, he visits pivotal moments in time – travelling back to stop Henry VIII from enjoying a festive turkey or attempting to dissuade St Nicholas from becoming the first person to give a Christmas present. And only one courageous young man stands in his way. It’s a show packed with catchy tunes, madcap antics and plenty of audience participation for kids and their grown-ups.
We visit Victorian times, where Sidney Claus intends to prevent Dickens from writing an era-defining analysis of wealth inequality and exploitation which has been disguised as a charming ghost story. “It’s hard to believe now, but Christmas had gone out of fashion back then.” Many didn’t even recognise it as a holiday, but A Christmas Carol and Queen Victoria’s fervour for the season saw it become the annual celebration we recognise today.
While Christmas might have been unfashionable in Victorian times, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned it outright. “I didn’t realise they’d also banned mince pies! It’s going a bit far… By all means ban Christmas, but don’t mess with my mince pies!” The show squarely takes aim at the then Government, who bizarrely also banned attending church on Christmas Day, unless it fell on a Sunday, and sent soldiers into the streets to confiscate any food they suspected was being prepared for festivities. Rules were taken very seriously. “They recognised in some way that it was a pagan festival. It had nothing to do with the teachings of the church, it was just an excuse for merry-making, drinking and dancing. They didn’t particularly enjoy the finer things in life.”
You’d have to wonder how some of our modern-day politicians would fare under the steely gaze of Horrible Histories-style show 300 years in the future. “I was only thinking this morning how Suella Braverman, Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg are such extreme people, with extreme opinions of what it is to be part of a civil society.” He confides that some public figures won’t have to wait for a couple of centuries. “Liz Truss always gets a laugh in our shows. Thank God for the Tory party…”
The story of Horrible Histories goes back to a book series created 30 years ago by Terry Deary which sought to place context upon some of the world’s biggest events. From Tudor savagery and the ancient Egyptians tenacity for getting stuff done, it opened new worlds for younger readers. “He’s irreverent himself, which feeds into the books. He realised that children love to delve into the gruesome, gory, silly and frankly unbelievable ways that people have behaved over the millennia. That’s what they’re really interested in – the peculiarities of what humans do to each other and what we do to survive against the odds.” While Deary knows how to engage and inspire his audience, he also strives to examine other points of view and present things from different perspectives. This runs through his original script for Horrible Christmas, which was written back in 1999 and forms the basis of the current stage show.
So, how does Foster regard the true spirit of Christmas? It’s something which seems increasingly up for discussion. “It’s all about family. It’s coming together and celebrating something. I had a difficult relationship with my family when I was younger. One Christmas they went away, so I went to celebrate with my best friend. And 40 years later I still go to his. His parents are still alive, and it’s just an incredible day with this family, and appreciating how important we are to each other” Although, one of the pitfalls of running a successful Christmas production is the impact on his own festivities. This year, he faces a five-hour drive up to Manchester on Boxing Day for a performance. “I’ll still do it. I’ve done that many times. It’s always worth it. There’s always a lovely atmosphere in the audience. It’s the perfect time for people to understand what the play is about.”
The show’s broad ambition is to generate better understanding around the more esoteric Christmas traditions. “I hope that might prompt them to think about other things in life which we take for granted. That’s the whole point of history. The human race tells stories about itself. But we don’t always know why we act the way we do. History is there to provide answers and questions.” It all feeds back into classic storytelling. Foster has recently been reading a book about the Brothers Grimm, and how important those stories are in our culture.
“They’re extraordinarily violent. So, what’s their usefulness? Children are very keen to see the worst… but in a safe environment. Because it helps them understand their place in the world and how they’re going to deal with it. I think that’s why Horrible Histories works. Because it allows children to look at the past and think about how they might have reacted or treated others. Which is really valuable.”
Foster has been running The Birmingham Stage Company for 31 years, and says he always wanted to be an actor. “Starting my own company meant I could be sure of being in great stuff. I wanted all of my life to be about theatre.” While his performers might appear to be improvising onstage, it comes from tight-scripting and rigorous rehearsals. He tells me you can have fun within the characters, but you can’t start going off-piste. Otherwise, people don’t know what’s happening. “There are so many great examples of that. The Two Ronnies, or Morecambe and Wise. It’s all scripted. They might look like they’re mucking about, but the trick of it is to make it look like you’re just having fun.” This is the approach the company takes to all their work; by making it look like anyone could do it. Obviously the difference between comedy and straight drama is pretty simple, especially for younger audiences. If they don’t laugh, you’ve failed.
“But if you get it right, they totally engage with it. They don’t fully understand the convention of theatre, so are not entirely sure if it’s real or not. You can create some extraordinary moments, because there’s a sense of drama and tension you can build onstage. Which children buy into, because that world of make believe is still a big part of their lives. It’s a shame that people stop playing when they become adults…”
The Birmingham Stage Company’s production of Horrible Christmas comes to Theatre Royal Brighton on Sat 16 Dec and Bexhill on Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion on Fri 22 Dec.