Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Sandra Callard, June 2014
Anybody with children or grandchildren knows about the wacky, gruesome and irreverent look at history through the television series Horrible Histories by Terry Deary. Now, the Birmingham Stage Company, which specialises in children’s entertainment and is quite unique in British theatre, is touring with a production based on this show. I must admit to a fairly reluctant look at their latest offering, Barmy Britain.
The show has only four performers, namely Alison Fitzjohn as Queenie, Benedict Martin as Rex, Laura Dalgleish as Esmeralda and Gary Wilson as Rog. But their small number appear to increase as they fill the stage with their presentations of Barmy Britain through the ages. They travel from the Roman invasion to WW1. They each play numerous characters, each one funnier than the last. Alison Fitzjohn looks startlingly like Queen Victoria, until she breaks into impromptu song and dance. The four of them clown their way through history, hardly drawing breath or breaking sweat. In fact, they prove to be one of the most versatile quartets I have seen in a long time.
It was almost a full house, but as the majority of theatre goers were children they more than made up for the few empty seats in noise, appreciation and laughter. The children instantly warm to the actors as they teach history their way. They throw in the occasional rude word or sound that kids will always love. Apparently the Black Death blows the body up so much that outrageous anti-social noises (and smells) emit from the stricken bodies. These are demonstrated in great detail, much to the delight of the hysterical kids.
“A telling and moving moment”
There is a sketch on ‘An Independent Scotland’. Here Alison Fitzjohn’s depiction of Scottish rebel William Wallace has me crying with laughter. Another with Benedict Martin offering Guy Fawkes as a contestant in a quiz to find out if he would be successful in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, is priceless and very, very clever. You find yourself inadvertently gleaning true facts from the chaotic scenes, and wanting to know more.
During the short interval we are told to collect our 3D spectacles from staff around the theatre. The second half proves to be the pièce de résistance. 3D settings are shown on screen at the back of the stage. The glasses enable us to see explosions, flying debris, birds, bats and cannon balls flying towards the audience. It has the children ducking out of the way. I freely admit that I have to steel myself not to do the same.
The way these talented four illustrate, in such an hilarious way, demonstrate how WW1 began, actually helps me understand how the various nations become embroiled in such a catastrophic conflict. The pause for 3D birds and poppies to fall on the audience is a telling and moving moment. The theatre becomes silent for a heartbeat.
“A unique theatrical experience”
This is a fantastic way to teach history. It makes it more enjoyable, understandable and fun. Whilst watching the apparent chaos and mayhem, it becomes clear that each fact is correctly researched. Doubtless the kids retain far more historical knowledge than they do when taught normally. We probably don’t want our teachers walking about in filthy rags, orange wigs and making unacceptable noises, but I bet more kids like history when they leave the theatre than before they came in. The object of the show is entertainment. But if a by-product is an interest and knowledge of Barmy Britain’s history, then I’m all for it.
As we begin to file out of the theatre, still with smiles on our faces, a very good imitation of a Churchillian voice comes over the speakers. It urges us, as honest Barmy Britons, to return our 3D glasses to the containers. It assures us that “Your theatre needs them!” Wonderful stuff! This is a unique theatrical experience, aimed primarily at children, but which adults can also enjoy. Even if it goes against their better judgement.