Horrible Histories: Terrible Tudors

Terry Deary
Birmingham Stage Company
Ashcroft Theatre at Fairfield Halls, Croydon

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The Execution of Anne Boleyn Credit: Ian Tilton
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Credit: Ian Tilton
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Credit: Ian Tilton

You might think the last place school children would choose to spend an evening during half term would be listening to a lecture on English history, but you'd be wrong. Celebrating 20 years of existence, the Birmingham Stage Company continues to bring theatre and history alive, enlightening the historians of tomorrow with their latest Horrible Histories offering: Terrible Tudors.

Did you know that to cure asthma the Tudors encouraged sufferers to eat live buttered spiders? Or that Henry VIII did not compose "Greensleeves"? Could you explain what a prigger of prancers was? Or what punishment a Tudor wife could expect for killing her husband? Facts, figures, fun and much more is covered in Terry Deary's wonderfully playful Terrible Tudors, based on his best-selling book of the same name.

Deary's books have sold well throughout the world as they aim to make history fun. In and amongst the savage stories, nasty narratives and tortuous tales, Deary interweaves the vital facts from the period and for his stage adaptation uses a troupe of travelling players to help tell the tale of the fearless family that ruled over England for 117 years.

‘The Terrible Tudor Traveller Show' in the form of Dr Dee, Drab and Dross make it their aim to prove that the Tudors really were terrible by way of presenting their horrible history for the modern audience; however an uninvited guest soon scuppers their plans as prim and proper Miss Tree accuses the trio of disrespecting England's past royalty. Just like the battles seen in Tudor England, Terrible Tudors becomes a battle of Tree versus the Trio, with the audience firmly on the trio's side and calling for as much vomit, blood, snot and gore as possible.

Framing the production thus enables Deary to challenge perceptions of the Tudors and introduces audience members to the notion of historiography. Facts we so often take for granted are disproved by the quarrelling historians and suddenly new, alternative histories are presented.

As Dr. Dee, Drab and Dross, Simon Lloyd, Pip Chamberlin and Laura Crowhurst do a sterling job in communicating the historical period's key facts by way of raps, rhymes, facial contortions, cross dressing, puns, audience participation and alliteration in abundance. Their slapstick nature of performance heavily contrasts Lynette Clarke's strict schoolmistress Miss Tree and allows for great comic interplay between the two camps. Tree's embarrassment and outrage at Drab and Dross's football metaphor to explain the splitting of the church is not only entertaining, but pitched at exactly the right level and in exactly the right way that students will remember this important episode of history for the rest of their lives.

Cartoon-style sound effects and illustrated projection accompany the piece of which the First Act focuses on the male Tudor monarchs' reign. Act Two then switches to Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I and is enriched by the use of 3D technology courtesy of Bogglevision. Fireworks, spiders, bricks and blood engulf the audience, but it is a shame that this is not used more evenly throughout the piece's hour and forty-five minute duration.

From Henry VII to Elizabeth I and everything in between, Terrible Tudors is yet another historical hit from the Birmingham Stage Company. Not only do they demonstrate that history can be fun, but that Theatre in Education is so much more than morals and messages. History, by its very nature, is theatrical and with a never ending stream of possible topics, long may Horrible Histories continue to enlighten and frighten its audience.

Terrible Tudors plays in rep with Vile Victorians at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 18th February 2012. The productions then tours extensively. For more information on tour dates see: http://www.birminghamstage.com/current_productions/horrible_histories_tudors_and_victorians/tour

Reviewer: Simon Sladen

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