Writer/Director: Neal Foster
The entertainment, spectacular, irreverent and technically audacious, begins even before the start of Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. A projection of the title, with “BARMY BRITAIN” spelt out in symbols of the British nation (a pithead, Nelson’s column, an Underground station, etc.), is already in animated life, with from time to time a football or cannonball projected, apparently into the auditorium, or a fighter plane shot down and the pilot drifting to earth with his parachute.
The interactive screen is far more than an attractive background to the on-stage action, though it’s that, too – some especially pretty, but realistic, medieval and Tudor scenes: it maps Richard I’s continental tours, for instance, or brings a castle to life, so much so that an arrow fells the Lionheart. After the interval it springs into super-3D, with an astonishing set of images of Elizabeth I’s funeral, culminating in a chilling transformation of the Queen’s head into a skull – like Terry Deary’s original, Neal Foster’s script doesn’t spare youngsters the shocking or gory bits. Through the second half the audience is bombarded with everything from bats to barrels in amazingly realistic form and throughout the Queen Victoria episode her crown sits majestically on its cushion over the stalls.
Foster presents what seems to be a fairly random selection of audience-friendly episodes from Our Island Story: Boudicca, the Black Death and Henry VIII all make the cut, appropriately so in the last case. Coincidentally York is represented by a couple of its eminent citizens: Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin. The presentation of Turpin sums up the Horrible Histories approach. The historical facts are impeccable – making the point that Turpin was not a bold highwayman from York, but a butcher and petty criminal from Essex – but the presentation is a touch unorthodox, Turpin and his associates recreated in the style of The Only Way is Essex. Fawkes scores pretty well in that way, too, appearing as a contestant on Who Wants to Blow Up Parliament? and phoning his friend Robert Catesby for help with an answer.
Only two actors for 2,000-plus years of history may sound like an austerity measure, but Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott fill the need with prodigious energy and the slickest of timing. Costumes and accents (gender, too) change in the blinking of an eye, the audience is gently bullied panto-style into joining in with jolly songs (even the ones about death are jolly), Queen Victoria and Henry VIII reveal surprising talents as rappers, perky dance routines alternate with dramatic deaths – and still Ballard and Philpott come up smiling.
With designs from Jacqueline Trousdale, music from Matthew Scott and a sound plot from Nick Sagar that almost becomes an extra character, not to mention the power of Bogglevision (for so the 3D effects are termed), Birmingham Stage Company’s touring production is spectacular, funny and really rather educational.