/ Review / Writing: Journalism

Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain (****)

It’s unlike me to be nervous about a review, but this one sent a peculiar shiver down my spine – I was raised on Horrible Histories, so this would, undoubtedly, be a very personal review. I’ve also studiously avoided all of the modern incarnations of my favourite childhood books, including the wildly successful TV show, for the same reason – the idea of seeing a slice of your childhood potentially damaged by someone else is a distressing one even to ponder. It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I can say that this stage version of Horrible Histories is delightful and charming, full of the humour that made the books such a joy, and, judging by the happy children in the audience, a great new kids’ show for the West End.

The principle behind Horrible Histories is pretty simple: instead of dry and dusty accounts, Terry Deary’s books make all of the little interesting bits of a certain era appealing to kids through cartoons and jokes – often in incredibly childish and simple ways, but how else will you tell a ten-year-old about the Tudors? As a child who was brought up on these, I can attest to their brilliance: I still remember some of the jokes – and thus the facts involved – to this day, so the system works. That same sense of humour and interest in the weird and wonderful has transitioned well onto the stage, combining with songs, dances and silly costumes into a fun and lively piece all about (barmy) Britain, ranging from the Romans all the way through to today.

From a more adult perspective, it’s impressive to see such a slick interplay of elements – there are a huge number of costumes and props, which is particularly impressive considering it’s all basically in a wicker basket on stage. This pleasantly guileless set-up combines beautifully with a detailed and elaborate library of sound and lighting effects and music, mixing magic and stagecraft to keep the kids on their toes – very elegantly done. Lauryn Redding and Benedict Martin are also hugely charismatic and unafraid of over-performing to keep the children entertained – critically speaking, there’s not much to fuss about.

But that’s not what this is about: it’s a kids show, and from the reactions all around me, I’d say it’ll be revoltingly successful. The show’s kept the tried-and-tested humour of the books (so expect plenty of references to bums and knickers), and the new stagecraft elements do more than enough to keep the young audience entertained. Frequent references to modern culture, including a number of spoofed TV shows, don’t fail to delight, and a number of fun, silly songs have the kids bouncing along in the aisles. Yep, bouncing: there are sing-alongs, audience participation dances, sing-offs – if you’re looking for a show to tire the little ones out, this may be a winning ticket, as the screaming hordes of children from the lobby did become the sleepy ones shuffling out at the end.

Apart from being good, silly fun, it’s also historically accurate and very educational – I did mention ‘revoltingly successful’ earlier, didn’t I? It’s all the classic old chestnuts for the Mums and Dads in the audience (yep, divorced/beheaded/died/divorced/beheaded/survived gets its own song), but for the kids who haven’t slogged their way through it all yet, it’s a lovely introduction to what’s so fun about studying history – the mad little facts that seem to slip between the dates. To be fair, it’s also a criticism that must be levelled – there is nothing in this show for adults, and I think the writers knew this when they threw in the last song, which was just a smidgeon too complicated for the young-uns and a little too late for parents hoping for anything deeper.

So, I’m triply pleased to recommend this show to all parents – it’s very good fun and it’s educational, but more importantly it’s a classic that instilled a love of history in me that hasn’t been ruined by a West End treatment – I couldn’t really ask for more! I might even try watching the TV show now…


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