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Demon Dentist - Neal Foster Interview

Back in 1992, Neal Foster started the Birmingham Stage Company. The company began when a then 23-year-old Neal came across an old building that appeared to be unused. That building was once the famous Birmingham Old Rep which for 60 years had been a powerhouse of British theatre run for many years by Sir Barry Jackson.

Neal Foster

Neal persuaded the City Council to let him reopen the building as a professional theatre but he had no money to run it or put on a show. He then came up with an ingenious way of raising money by persuading a glittering array of stars from the UK and the US to be interviewed by him in front of a paying audience. After stars such as Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Jack Lemmon, Glenn Close, and Dustin Hoffman all agreed and the company was born. 

Fast forward to 2022 and the company is now one of the world's leading companies for presenting theatre for children and their families. Acclaimed productions include 15 world premieres of Horrible History plays which have toured internationally, Skelling on Broadway, adaptations of Roald Dahl's books, and adaptations of David Walliams' books including Gangsta Granny, The Billionaire Boy, and Awful Auntie. 

The company has just launched its latest adaption of the works of Walliams with their staging of the 2013 book Demon Dentist. I sat down with Neal who has adapted the book for the stage and also directs the production.

Neal began by explaining the premise of the show to me. "Along with Gangsta Granny, it's probably my favourite David Walliams story. It's a real adventure and mystery that he's created involving strange things that are going on in the town where young Alfie, our hero, lives. Together with his friend Gabz they try and work out why children are waking up in the morning having put a tooth under their pillow only to find very strange things have been left instead of a pound coin they're getting frogs, spiders, and leftover food. Horrible things that make them wonder what is going on." 

"So they set about trying to find out and it turns out there's a new dentist in town. It all relates to her and a secret ambition she has got for the children of the town. It's a real thrilling adventure and what is interesting is that I think it's the funniest show we've ever had, I've never had a response to a show like the response we're getting. The actors are having to stop so many times just to cope with the audience's reaction, particularly school audiences they just go mad. It's not that they just find things funny they also get very emotionally involved so they're cheering and clapping."

David Walliams with the cast of Demon Dentist. Photo by Jack Sain

Walliams himself has watched and approved of the productions "what was wonderful was yesterday I was able to sit down with David Walliams himself and watch it together which was the first time he'd seen it. That is always an incredible thrill. It was great to work on something written by Roald Dahl but of course, I was never going to have the chance to sit down with Roald Dahl and watch it so there is something incredible about getting to sit there with the man who created the story and watching it together and having him lean over at one point go "that is very funny" at something I'd created for the stage show."

Being the fourth adaptation the company has done of David Walliams's books our chat turned to what led Neal to want to adapt the books for the stage he explained "the true story is that I had a general manager called Peter who came in one day and said "did you see Gangsta Granny on telly?" and I said no. He said it's something we should have a look at and he got hold of the book for me to read and I loved it. We asked David if he'd be interested in letting us put it on stage. I think it was our success with Horrible Histories that made him interested in what we were going to do with it. Then the question came of who was going to write the adaptation and I said I'd like to do it but here's the thing I've never done an adaptation of a fictional novel. The agent said it's a big project for you to try it out for the first time. I said well let's make a deal if its rubbish then we've got time to get someone else who knows what they're doing to try again and I said I'd like to have a go and amazingly it worked out well and David loved the adaptation and now Demon Dentist is our fourth show of his works."

Neal once more refers to his time with Walliams the day previously "that's what was so great about yesterday was to know that it might only be my fourth adaptation as it were and I'm sitting next to the author and the kids around us are going absolutely mad with joy and fun and with the adventure. That partnership has worked out really well."

Our talk turned to the challenges Neal faces as he adapts the books, he told me "this particular book has a lot of challenges. I always think if the public has read the book or if they haven't there's an expectation, particularly with David Walliams, that it's going to be a big show and I like to feel we really deliver all the expectations. This is the biggest show we've ever done and it's got all sorts of things that my designer Jackie Trousdale had to solve. The biggest thing is that we end up in an old coal mine where the dentist has created her palace. So from a start, we've got to go from Alfie's bedroom to the inside of a coal mine in which a train appears and the dentist has got her cauldron and there's dynamite going off, there's a lift shaft and it's like how do you do all that on stage. We're not the National Theatre with a huge budget so we have to do it all in a way that is going to work and it has to fit into a lorry as well. The whole set has to fit into one lorry that tours and that is the skill of Jackie, that she has created this fabulous set that literally gets a wow from the audience as they see different things."

"It's also how you make a thriller really work on stage because people have to suspend their disbelief in order to believe what the characters are going through. It's also mixing it with comedy, what's absolutely fabulous is that even while all this great drama is going on there is constant jokes, it's jokes jokes jokes all the time. It's like a children's version of Anton Chekhov, while you're gripping your seat wondering what is going to happen next you're also laughing and that is a great facet of David's work and something I really wanted to capture for the show which I'm pleased to say seems to be working very well."

David Walliams with cast members of Demon Dentist. Photo by Jack Sain

With a book handily available Neal doesn't really require much research, he explains much of that is left to designer Jackie "I don't do so much, I know Jackie the designer, does an awful lot. Whenever she designs a show for me she'll turn up with a scrapbook full of ideas. It's set in a dentist surgery so she'll have all sorts of possibilities of how it can be set up, she'll have different pictures of ideas of how she can create a mine and that sense of being underground and she's come up with an idea that she's never done before a designer that works fantastically well." 

"For myself, the book is my bible and then I just draw on my sense of being silly and I think that's why my adaptations of David's books have worked because we're both quite able to be silly and that's a key fixture of the shows. They don't take themselves too seriously and they allow the audience to have a lot of fun and I think David feels I get the tone right because the tone of his books is very specific to him and I really enjoy that tone. He manages to combine really interesting social issues, once again this play has got some really moving and important stuff about family, disability, and social workers. Really important themes and mixing it with extraordinarily silly humour and getting that balance right and I guess that's just experience and it has helped that I've done Horrible Histories for so long where inevitably you're taking a really serious subject and making them fun."

A title like Demon Dentist in itself can strike fear into people who may not enjoy a visit for their regular teeth checkup. It's about striking that balance something the company has continually managed and once again here. Neal explained "it's perceived as quite a scary book and obviously I want to create something that's thrilling and is scary in a really fun way because we all like that thrill of a jump or when we get a little bit scared but we have to do that in a totally safe way. In a way, it's really good for children and that's why they love it because they like to explore the worst thing that can happen in a safe environment so that they can understand how they might react and what they might do in those circumstances so scary is good in some ways in a child's education and development. They like to test themselves so as long as you do it in a safe way where they're in control and the wonderful thing about theatre is that you're sat next to people and with hundreds of people around you. It's a bit like going on a rollercoaster where everyone is screaming at the same time and you all know because you can hear all the other people that you're having a great time and nothing is actually going to go wrong but you can feel that it might go wrong and that's what we're always playing with, allowing it to be thrilling without it tipping into being too scary and it being not fun anymore. It's always got to be fun scary and not pure fight night."

With the 30th anniversary of the Birmingham Stage Company, I posed to Neal how he reflects on the company's journey and his hopes for the future. He told me "when we had our 5th anniversary I thought even if I can manage to keep the company going for 30 years which I thought at that point would be highly unlikely that I would still only be 56 and what would I do then". We laugh. "I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jack Lemmon, the American film star whose father was in the bread business and Jack's father had said to him "the moment I lose my passion for bread, that's when I'll stop making it" and that's sort of how I feel, for as long as I feel as passionate as I am and find sitting in an audience, and I'm still an actor myself and am just about to go down to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall this half term to do one of our Horrible History shows, as long as I'm finding it as exciting and fun as I did 25 years ago then I'll keep going. I never want to get to a point where it's not exciting and it still is. Like yesterday when I got up at 5.30 in the morning to have a swim before seeing the show and watching it with David Walliams and if that's my life then I'm quite happy with that. Particularly nowadays with all sorts of struggles and the most important I've learned is to keep putting one foot in front of another, it's best to not make too many plans because we know what happens to great plans. I think the most important thing is that one foot in front of the other and making sure you're enjoying as you go because there's no point in doing it if it's not fun."

Our chat wrapped up with Neal explaining why he thinks anyone should come along and see Demon Dentist. He said "I think in the difficult times we're in, I think all of us could do with a really good thrilling adventure that is a lot of fun that you're all going to enjoy as a family cause it's a true family show adults enjoy it just as much as children. In these times we're in, I've always had a strong belief in keeping our ticket prices really affordable, I've never wanted theatre to be something that people have to think too hard about. We make it affordable so you can come along and enjoy something that is really world-class without having to stretch your pocket too much but knowing you're going to come out having had a fantastic night's entertainment and that's what we're always hoping to achieve."

Demon Dentist is touring the UK with dates currently booking through until November 2023. Full tour schedule can be found at The show is coming to Belgrade Theatre in Coventry from 26th to 29th October 2022 with tickets available from 

David Wallias and the cast of Demon Dentist. Photo by Jack Sain

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