BOOK REVIEW: Frank Exchanges

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: David Wood and Frank Whitbourn

Editor: Chris Abbott

A collection of letters that chronicle a lifelong friendship, Frank Exchanges also charts a key development in the history of children’s theatre.

Letters between dramatist and actor David Wood and director Frank Whitbourn begin in the 1950’s. Wood attends a residential drama course, where Whitbourn directs him in a play. The letters begin as David pursues, initially, a career in acting. He soon discovers a talent for writing and adapting children’s theatre. An early success, writing the screenplay for the 1974 film Swallows and Amazons, sees Wood immersing himself in children’s theatre, taking shows directly into schools, pioneering access for generations of schoolchildren.

Wood writes to Whitbourn frequently, relaying stories and asking for advice. Whitbourn offers not just praise, but valuable critique that Wood can trust. Whitbourn is, in many ways, the perfect sounding board. When Wood voices concerns, or sends him a fledgling script to look over, Whitbourn is not afraid to suggest another way forward. He inhabits his mentor role seriously, and with great enthusiasm. The sense of excitement when a David Wood production is firmly underway, is palpable.

By grouping the letters in chronological order, we get a picture of how the men’s relationship develops over time. Their mutual interests, including an encyclopaedic appreciation of J.M Barrie, comes full circle. At Frank’s eulogy in 2005, David movingly describes Whitbourn as a Peter Pan; a grown man whose “mind stayed ever young”.

While the letters include Wood’s successes, Wood recognises the near-misses are just as interesting to the reader, and they survive the edit. For example, a musical production of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, draws together Don Black on lyrics and the composer Barrington Pheloung. It fails to flourish. Even more intriguing is the brief run of Abbacadabra; a musical featuring the music of ABBA. Wood amalgamates early-era computer games with traditional fairytales. Starring Jenna Russell, Nigel Harman and Dexter Fletcher, this show was the “one that got away”. Seventies’ music paired with cutting-edge technology: ABBA Voyage, anyone?

It is noticeable how many of Wood’s productions are ahead of the curve. Wood adapted several Roald Dahl novels, including The Witches, BFG and The Twits. A musical version of Matilda (where Wood worked with songwriting duo Stiles and Drewe) is shelved, years before Tim Minchin’s version for the RSC breaks box-office records. Wood cheerfully accepts these theatrical ‘what ifs’ as part and parcel of the creative experience.

The letters also, more broadly, illustrate the shifting landscape of theatre. Government budget cuts and policy changes all get in the way. But Wood’s belief that children’s theatre should receive as much attention as adults’ is thinking decades ahead of its time. While education today centres on STEM, and humanities’ university numbers are falling, Wood’s insistence on a fully-rounded education; one fit for all eventualities, feels more on topic than ever. Whitbourn and Wood’s letters acknowledge their debt to theatre; experiences that enabled them as children to think independently, to feel and empathise. These are skills we cannot afford to lose.

Book Available now by The Book Guild

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