Director: Benedict Martin
Writer: Book by Terry Deary / Adapted by John-Paul Cherrington
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Disgusting, barbarous and just plain gross, Terrible Tudors is a production that gives us the best of the worst. Reveling in the period covering Henry VII to his grand-daughter, Elizabeth I, Terrible Tudors explores a time in history we think we know. Books, films, television programmes – the Tudors are big business. In Terry Deary’s series of children’s books, Horrible Histories, we look at the reality of being a Tudor.
Deary’s books examine – in great detail – what it is like to live during these turbulent times. Not only do we see the choices made by monarchs to protect their throne, but the events that ruled ordinary people’s lives. Deary doesn’t hold back on the gore – if it oozed or squelched, it’s in the book and on the stage.
Although aimed at Deary’s army of young readers, with a creative blend of old-fashioned story-telling and hi-tech wizardry, Terrible Tudors doesn’t pander to its audience, and that is the secret of its success. Explaining complex subjects, clearly and concisely, the cast gets over a great deal of information in just 90 minutes. No question is too small or too silly – to understand the big stuff, you need to know the small stuff first, and this is what Terrible Tudors does so well. It is teaching by stealth, and Deary is an excellent tutor. The history isn’t skimped on, either. Even if you consider yourself a buff, enthusiast or novice, you will come away with something new.
Performed by a cast of just three, Simon Nock, Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer manage to fill a stage with personality and charm. Taking on several roles, Doctor Dee (Simon Nock) takes great relish in explaining manky, medieval medicine (if you were a Tudor suffering from asthma, you’d be well advised to live with it); and giving us a ghetto fabulous rundown of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
What this production gets right is the balance of disseminating information amid the cultural references. Used sparingly, they are fun touches that keep a young audience engaged. It’s a clever strategy, as it really makes the serious moments resonate. Lisa Allen’s Elizabeth I stops to consider the true cost of her family’s legacy, and it’s a moment of real poignancy.
What the Horrible Histories series does, and brilliantly, is to humanise history. The Tudors can seem like a distant prospect, but in naming individuals (small and great), it brings the reality of Tudor life, well, to life. And it was a thoroughly unpleasant life. Horrible Histories doesn’t sugar-coat the details; the punishments meted out to criminals will have you squirming.
The show is also careful to debunk myths about our most well-known Tudors. Henry VIII’s bedroom antics are not the stuff of the Carry On films, but more the work of a cantankerous misogynist; and Elizabeth I is guilty of terrible crimes against her own family.
For all the fun and games, there is a serious point being made throughout Horrible Histories. Not only is history written by the victor, but when you know more, it makes telling the hero from the villain that much harder. In an age of fake news, the ability to tell fact from fiction has never been more important. To look further, and think a little deeper – for children of all ages, there is no better lesson to learn.
Runs until Saturday 23 February 2019 | Image: Mark Douet