Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain
Terry Deary, Neal Foster & Ciaran McConville
The Birmingham Stage Company
The latest batch of the Horrible Histories stories to be premiered live on stage, appropriately to catch half-term audiences, takes us through British history from the Roman invasion to World War One.
With the aid of a huge prop basket and a washing line strung up between a couple of lamp posts to hide their quick changes, the inexhaustible Lauryn Redding and Benedict Martin play linkperson presenters Queenie and Rex and everyone else. They can morph into anyone and any gender, from a Roman chef cooking that speciality from Apicus's cook book roast dormouse and his overfed, post-prandial, vomiting employer to General Haig being fired by Baron Sugar of Clapton in a 1918 version of TV's The Apprentice.
For an hour they keep things going at full rip with enough reference to poo and knickers to keep those with the most basic juvenile sense of humour happy, but the writers pay their young audience the compliment of assuming that they will remember quite a bit from their history books. Quite rightly, for a full house of youngsters cottoned on quickly and were clearly delighted.
Television, where the Horrble Histories have also had great success, contributes quite a lot to the format. There is a Relocation Relocation framework for the arrival of a Viking looking for a barn conversion (he plumps instead for Llindesfarne Monastery and gains it by conquest) and a Who wants to be a Millionaire? format for Guy Fawkes. With Henry VIII and his wives, no holds are barred and the audience gets involved in a panto-style singalong competition with a rapid recital of their ends "Divorced, Beheaded. Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived". Instead of Greensleeves (we're told that its Italianate style didn't reach England until after Henry died) we get a rap, courtsey of Bluff Hal and Anne Boleyn.
The death penalty dealt out for almost everything and executions at Tyburn are sufficiently remote that a fast-tempo "Tyburn Jig" with actions is a hoot. Even Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer wrapping up her charges in brown paper and throwing them in the Thames, or the horrible hacking off of legs by a Crimean surgeon, work as comedy, but already there is quite a serious note feeding in. Although cleverly satirised, there is wisely no attempt to turn the Battle of the Somme into a giggle and it is followed by a stern reminder in the final knees-up that horrible history is still going on.
Full marks to the hard-working performers and to director Neal Foster and his team. Adults will find it as much fun as the kids, maybe even more, especially if they are uninhibited enough to join in the audience participation.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton