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Book Review: Frank Exchanges by David Wood

David Wood is an actor, playwright, composer, theatre producer and director, author and magician. He began acting and writing at Oxford University in the sixties. Since then he has become the ‘National Children’s Dramatist’ (Irving Wardle), a term that he dislikes! He has written over eighty plays including The Owl and The Pussycat Went to See, The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, adapted from Judith Kerr’s book, which is currently touring the UK before playing at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, during August and September.

DW and FW at FW's home in Winchester, 2001.
David Wood and Frank Whitbourn at FW’s home in Winchester, 2001.

In 1959, Wood attended a summer holiday Drama School in West Sussex which was tutored by Frank Whitbourn. Frank was a charismatic English and Drama teacher who had learned his trade with Harcourt Williams’ company at The Old Vic, before working for the British Council where he directed Shakespeare in the Middle East and Mexico, as well as teaching Stephen Joseph at Clayesmore School.

‘Frank Exchanges’ is a collection of letters that chronicle a lifelong friendship between the two men, beginning in 1959 and continuing until Frank’s death in 2005. They form a fascinating working biography that shows much of David Wood’s creative processes as, very often, he would send Frank early drafts of his work for comment – those comments always being truthful and helpful, but positive, as his school reports were!

At this point I should mention that I was also greatly influenced by Frank Whitbourn, or ‘FW’ as he would always sign himself. He taught me at Collyer’s Grammar School in Horsham, where he was Head of English from the early 1960s, and he was probably the most influential person in my early adult life. He directed me as The Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons, as well as several of his own plays and I directed him as the narrator in the musical version of Canterbury Tales and 1066 And All That. We became great friends when he retired and, as he did not drive, I ferried him to the premieres of many of David Wood’s plays, not just those for children but also others such as The Luck of The Bodkins with music by John Gould for which we travelled to Windsor. So, although perhaps biased in my review of this book, I am able to say with confidence that FW’s personality just jumps out of the pages. There is so much vitality and enthusiasm in his letters, especially in his use of the word SPLENDID, which he often used but which was always meant!

As a document charting the development of David Wood as a theatre practitioner this is a valuable and most entertaining read. As something which has brought back many wonderful memories to me it is to be treasured! I have found it quite engrossing, both Wood’s and FW’s writing style always being a pleasure to read. By the way, I get a mention on page 20….

It is a shame that there is not an index, but the boundless energy, humour, generosity and humanity of FW shine through in this volume. A Very Good Read and highly recommended to everyone interested in twentieth century theatre.

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

The book is availble on Amazon in paperback and also on Kindle.

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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