HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN SHEFFIELD LYCEUM JULY 15TH 2014
As one thousand years of history gallop at breakneck speed from Roman times towards World War One, gruesome gore, macabre mayhem, painful puns, side-splitting slapstick and fearful facts by the bucket-load hold the kids enthralled. In fact, The Birmingham Stage Company has got riveting children’s entertainment down to such a fine, Bafta-winning art that adults are as captivated as kids.
Since 1993, Terry Deary’s eighty Horrible Histories books have sold millions worldwide, their hysterical, historical details bound round with firm facts. Onstage, courtesy of Terry and co-writer/director Neal Foster, rotten Romans, vile Victorians, vicious Vikings and terrible Tudors all come together to help decide: Is Britain really Great or is it just plain Barmy?
Two wicked women and two hair-raisingly horrible men argue out the answer, their boundless energy, gusto and multiple talents eliciting screams, giggles and rivalries of shouting and singing from the audience. As they rattle through time with lots of dressing up, melodramatic acting and silly accents, their diction, voice projection and singing skills are of the highest calibre. The beautifully operatic Alison Fitzjohn has the kids with her from the word go, whether as big, fat, threatening, red-haired Boudicca, Queenie the traffic warden, a poor whipping boy or Queen Victoria, earning ‘Respect’ with her break-dancing. Benedict Martin’s magnificent Kenneth Williams-type tones weave deliciously into the Pythonesque pantomime style, while Gary Wilson and Laura Dalgleish also shine bright, especially when, as a TOWIE ladette, Laura, reveals the truth about Essex-lad Dick Turpin. Shut up!
History frequently is linked into the present via TV shows. Body-snatching Burke and Hare sing their chilling song to the tune of Postman Pat; Guy Fawkes, on Who Wants To Blow Up Parliament?, phones a friend as well as asking the audience to help him out; the Vikings look for a new home on Relocation, Relocation, Relocation, and a very silly Henry VIII puppet is quizzed about his wives and the Pope on Blue Peter.
Facts fire forth thick and fast as Celts throw severed heads into lakes to offer to the gods and Richard Lionheart clops abroad Spamalot-style on a couple of coconut halves, speaking hardly a word of English (just Yorkshire, apparently.) We have Roundheads versus Cavaliers and a sing-along contest about the Black Death (with a nasty bite from a chicken called … Suarez) while Elizabeth the First takes to the stage in her big frock and sun-glasses.
After the interval, kids and adults alike flinch, gasp and scream in fright as birds, bats, skulls and all manner of flying debris hurtle convincingly their way in 3D Bogglevision, while the pre-show graphics are an entertainment in themselves.
By focusing not on just one era as in previous shows, though, but on a thousand years of barminess, there’s a slight danger at times of reaching frenetic information overload or of going, perhaps, one hanging too far, but that doesn’t quite happen. Thanks not only to writers and performers, but also to set, costume, graphics, sound and lighting designers, choreographers and musicians, the quality of the jollity and the genius of the loopiness sparkle to the end.
Eileen Caiger Gray