Horrible Histories Charts Britain’s Comical Chronicles

By Londonist Last edited 43 months ago
Horrible Histories Charts Britain’s Comical Chronicles ★★★★☆ 4

London, UK. 10.10.2013. Birmingham Stage Company presents, as part of the Horrible Histories series of stage shows, Barmy Britain Part II, at the Garrick Theatre, from September 26th 2013 to January 5th 2014. Cast is: Lauryn Redding and Anthony Spargo. Photograph © Jane Hobson.
Alison Fitzjohn and Neal Foster.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

What do Boudicca, William Wallace and Dick Turpin all have in common? Unless you’re a history buff, you may not know. Fortunately you can find out about the unexpected links between these famous figures at the Garrick Theatre where they are currently being brought to life in Horrible Histories Barmy Britain Part II.

This two person spectacular, craftily written by Terry Deary, Ciaran McConville and Neal Foster (who also directs), takes the audience through some of the more brutish bits of British history. The premise is a competition to decide whether Britain is ‘barmy’ or ‘great’, cleverly cooked up by Rex (played by Foster) who, in keeping with historical tradition, accepts a challenge from Queenie (played by Alison Fitzjohn) when he picks up her intentionally dropped glove.

Foster and Fitzjohn delight in their lightning-quick interpretations of everyone from Queen Victoria to the body-snatching William Burke via the Essex highway robbers — each character complete with his or her own slapdash costume and props. The end result is a 2,000 year voyage through British history that is both interactive, informative and funny.

The humour is clever, albeit juvenile at times — so it does depend on your taste. We didn’t laugh at the ‘Groom of the Stool’ jokes quite as much as everyone else, though couldn’t help chiming in with the audience sing-along about the awful manner in which people died from the bubonic plague. The most popular moment perhaps was Queen Vic rapping and breakdancing like a (very) old skool hip-hopper.

Based on the popular Horrible Histories TV programme, this participatory show is a crowd-pleaser for kids yet also, in between the sillier eye-rolling moments, we found there were more than a few interesting historical tidbits to take note of. Also positive is the way the show recognises the contributions of both male and female historical figures and stays current by subtly critiquing present day leaders.

The minimal set — essentially an on-stage dressing room — is made up of a wooden cart and two dead trees that accommodate quick (and frequently visible) costume changes. Clever lighting and sound effects emphasise the punchlines and facilitate transitions between time periods. The game show and sing-along formats also help to keep the heavier historical facts digestible and the energy high.

One nice detail is the intentionally crooked frame outlining the stage, which reminds you that history is a question of how we choose to frame it. Here, despite the fact that quite a bit of Britain’s history was ‘horrible’ (particularly for those on the receiving end — and especially the beheaded), there is still a great deal to learn.

By Sophia S.

Horrible Histories Barmy Britain Part II runs at the Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road WC2, until 5 January 2015. Tickets £15-£20. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 23 December 2014