HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st December, 2021
Terry Deary’s bestselling books have spawned a hit television series, a film or two, and this, the latest in a succession of stage shows based on his work.
A cast of two, namely Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott, take us on a whistle-stop tour of two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Victorian age. On-stage costumes enable very quick changes, so the pair can play all the parts without stopping the flow of the action.
Ballard and Philpott work very well together, and they work very hard to keep energy levels high and the audience engaged. There are songs to singalong with, complete with simple actions, but above all there is plenty to laugh at. The action is augmented by a video backdrop, which becomes 3-D in the second act (glasses are provided) and the dialogue is punctuated throughout by comical sound effects (courtesy of Nick Sagar’s sound design) but it’s the efforts of the seemingly tireless actors that have the most impact.
Highlights include Richard the Lionheart, with an hilarious running joke about roaring after his name is spoken, a scene about the Black Death (which has Pythonesque overtones) and in particular, an extended sequence about Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. There are strokes of genius: Elizabeth the First in an episode of Undercover Boss, Guy Fawkes on a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Pastiche; and the most horrible story, that of body-snatchers Burke and Hare. This sequence is presented in the most stylised way, so we get the horrible history without the graphic violence. The Postman Pat theme song will never be the same. Finally, a rap duet between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is delightfully irreverent.
The script is packed with information, but the delivery is so entertaining, you’re learning as a side effect. Neal Foster’s direction keeps the actors busy with comic business, and there are at least as many laugh-out-loud moments as a pantomime. So, if you’re looking for an alternative Christmas entertainment for the family, you won’t go horribly wrong with this little cracker.