Based on the books by Terry Deary
Writers: Terry Deary & Neal Foster
Director: Neal Foster
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
For 25 years the books of Horrible Histories have been delighting, disgusting and in some cases frightening the young (and old) of the nation. A tremendously valuable tool, they captured an imaginative way to make history and culture accessible for people who found little interest. Written by original author Terry Deary with Neal Foster, Horrible Histories the Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are two shows which may share a cast, but each is crammed with enough differences to merit its own show.
Time flows in a peculiar way once we venture into the past, in two forty-five-minute acts we somehow go from the coronation of cruel hunchback Richard III right up to the death of Elizabeth I. We witness the building of the Pyramids and cover an extensive period of British and world history quicker (and better) than most curriculums. Yet, it doesn’t feel long enough. We want, neigh we beg more. We want more squelching moments of disgust, period cures to common ailments, more mummy (w)rapping and assuredly more interaction between the three performers.
Of the two, the vicious dramatics of Terrible Tudors may have more blood, gore and a braver audience, but it is those Awful Egyptians who have the more rounded piece. The overall narrative has a more fluid structure, with the smoother transitions between scenes. We are not solely witnessing the stories but instead trapped inside a Museum of Ancient Egyptian antiquities where the imposing Rameses the Great has been awakened.
A sumptuous blend of the ridiculous with the technological exists on stage. Some of the props are directly out of the drama school closet, the dolls of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I are adorable, yet still creepy, speaking of which as is the puppet of Henry VIII only son, Edward. They’re used with love, their less grand manner heightening the gags. Buckle up though, this second act is about to pull out the bells and whistles…
A selling point for both Horrible Histories is its Boggle vision – 3D projections which serve as the backdrop for the second half. In cinema, this is a gimmick used once every thirty years. The fifties tried it, the eighties re-invented it and the later 2000s vastly improved upon it. The design work of Jackie Trousdale is tremendous. The cold stones of the Tower of London, rich flames and crimson squelches of blood plastering the screen setting the tone sublimely. Likewise, the vivid brightness of Ancient Egypt is only as appealing as the atmospheric haunts of the afterlife…
Just when you thought we couldn’t be livelier – these are in fact musicals. Yep, you read that right. Nothing works better for memorising history than mind-numbing rhymes which are far better than they have any right to be. Matthew Scott’s music composition captures Horrible Histories television show tunes many will be familiar with, Izaak Cainer and Lisa Allen belting out accomplished vocals.
In keeping with any successful children’s show, they cross the threshold into adult territory. Doing so not only in humour but through serious tone changing, shifting from the farcically fun into the dramatic but gruesome features of history. The dedication undertook by cast member Lisa Allen in her closing moments as Elizabeth I are stirring, echoing back to the sinister turn earlier in the production as the famous Green Sleeves degrades into the fate of Anne Boleyn.
Simon Nook, half caricature, half comedian and half King of England brings his absolute A-game to both productions, firstly as a larger than life Henry the VIII but then as an even more menacingly hilarious Ramesses the Great. He knows just when to kickstart the audience, which button needs pushing and how to dial up the volume from the party poopers in the crowd. His voices encourage fits of pure giggles in a way the original books first accomplished. His performance to ‘make Egypt great again’ may slip over a few heads but has knifepoint commentary laced throughout.
Nook, Allen and Cainer capture the essence of what Deary brought to the publishing world decades ago. To not only educate but to entertain, gross-out and ignite a passion for history. Both Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are hilarious, engaging and beneficial for any inspiring history buff while reigniting a passion for us adults.
Runs until 16 June 2019 then touring | Image: Contributed