Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writers: Neal Foster and Terry Deary

Director: Neal Foster

Reading Horrible Histories and watching the TV series have become a staple part of many a child’s formative years. Now there’s a chance to see some horrible history in your local theatre, as the live West End show goes on tour.

With a cast of just two people (Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott) we’re taken on a rapid tour of over two thousand years of British history with a show that is aimed very firmly at a young audience – and the young people watching on Press Night clearly loved every minute of it. It’s pretty non-stop too – a necessity if you’ve going to keep younger viewers engaged – and Ballard and Philpott work extremely hard to keep things moving.

It’s a show full of high points. There’s the Black Death that could have come straight out of Monty Python, Anne Boleyn trying to coach Henry VIII in how to woo her, and Dick Turpin being caught by accident when he wrote a letter to his brother. Then who can forget Elizabeth I doing her version of Undercover Boss disguised only by a pair of sunglasses? It includes a long conversation with Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool, now out of a job – but he still carries his very brown and stained ‘wiping cloth’ with him as a memento of his happier times. The reaction from the audience when he uses it to wipe away his tears shows in itself just how invested the young people have become in the show. Young people love toilet humour, and here it is at its finest.

In fact, among all of these highs the lowest point is probably a Chris Tarrant Who Wants to be a Millionaire sequence of the Guy Fawkes story, which has most likely been put in for an adult audience. It’s hard to see if the younger members of the audience will relate to it very well, it’s lacking the humour which is almost non-stop elsewhere, and it goes on just a bit too long.

It soon bucks up again though, with some the gorier details of Burke and Hare’s exploits sung to the Postman Pat theme tune, and a rapping Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The set is mostly a large video screen with a few simple props. During the second act, the video screen is used for 3D effects which they call Bogglevision. It’s the sort of thing that you might find in many pantos but here it’s been toned down and is less scary for the young ones.

It’s great fun, and the challenge must have been to work out which of the thousands of episodes in the books to include here on stage. The concept with all of the Horrible Histories series has been about learning almost as a side-effect of the entertainment, and this is no different. There’s a pretty good chance that the adults in the audience will come out having learnt something too. It is, as they say, “history with the nasty bits left in” – full of trivia but educational in the process. As we run up towards Christmas, this is a good bit of entertainment as an alternative to pantomime.

Runs until 4 December 2021

The Reviews Hub Score:

A horrible treat for a young audience

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