Rose Zierer inspires the West End staging of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny

Birmingham Stage Company presents Gangsta Granny by David Walliams.
Picture: Mark Douet

Birmingham Stage Company presents Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. Picture: Mark Douet - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

Under the Age UK Camden’s Good Neighbour Scheme, theatre manager Neal Foster was matched with 97-year-old Rose Zierer and visited her Chalk Farm home weekly for six years

It was the loss of his own mother that prompted Neal Foster to volunteer for Age UK Camden.

Under the charity’s Good Neighbour Scheme, the theatre manager was matched with 97-year-old Rose Zierer and visited her Chalk Farm home weekly for six years.

When the 50-year-old came to adapt fellow Belsize Park resident David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny for the stage, he dedicated it to Rose.

“I would see Age UK flyers asking for donations but thought ‘wouldn’t it be more effective if I volunteered?’,” says Foster, who founded Birmingham Stage Company 25 years ago.

“My mum died of depression 12 years ago, there was nothing I could do to help her in the last years of her life, but as I began to realise what she had suffered, I thought ‘if I do something positive and help someone else it’s the same as helping her’.”

Foster, whose stagings of George’s Marvellous Medicine and Horrible Histories play to packed houses, felt “very lucky” to be paired with Rose.

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“We hit it off immediately. She was the most exceptional strong character who took no nonsense. She had lived through two world wars which for someone who stages Horrible Histories was fascinating. It was an important relationship for me, we’re all busy with our own lives but it’s easy to feel what am I contributing?.”

Aiming to alleviate loneliness, the scheme echoes themes in Walliams’ bestseller, about a granny who invents a thrilling past to entice her reluctant grandson to visit.

“When you’ve lived as long as Rose all your friends have died, her husband was dead, she had no children. Loneliness is a real issue,” says Foster.

“In Gansta Granny the grandson is bored of playing scrabble and eating cabbage. When she overhears him telling his parents ‘I can’t stand it here,’ she creates these stories. They end up getting carried away and try to steal the Crown Jewels.

“David’s story doesn’t pull any punches. He’s robust in its storytelling which stops it being sentimental. It’s fantastical in terms of the plot but their relationship is very astute and truthful.”

Foster dedicated the play to Rose “because their relationship is very similar to mine with Rose.”

“Rose has had an effect on me greater than the effect I had on her. Helping someone but not as a family obligation is so rewarding. I made the last six years of her life much easier and was lucky to have been there for such a great woman. Those of us who volunteer get so much out of it. It’s a great bargain”

When Rose died aged 103, Foster started visiting 87-year-old Joy from Belsize Park.

Now adapting Walliam’s Awful Auntie for the stage he has enjoyed working with the children’s author.

“We share the same sense of humour and an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. I like to be faithful to the essence of the book - our only disagreement was when he wanted me to take more liberties. He has a refreshing view of his own work”.

Foster loves writing for children: “I find them fascinating. There’s no difference between me and a child except I am more experienced. Entertaining children it’s a real challenge to keep their attention. If they’re bored they start talking, you have to give them a reason to keep listening. They can handle incredibly difficult themes if you give them a way in. What’s the last adult play that dealt with loneliness and issues of old age? Gangsta Granny is a children’s show that might change adult attitudes about how they deal with the older people in their lives.”

Gangsta Granny runs at the Garrick Theatre from July 26 to August 1 with a gala night, auction and aftershow party on July 28 when all proceeds go to Age UK Camden.