By the Mulvihill family review team
The Horrible History franchise, through both the 40-odd published books and the popular BBC TV series, will be familiar to anyone who has had kids in the last ten years. There’s even an open top tour bus in Edinburgh that offers a Horrible Histories’ audio guide for children. It has been a fantastic vehicle for getting youngsters interested in a subject that had been allowed to grow musty and dusty in old, dryly written tomes. The Birmingham Stage Company, directed by Neal Foster and co-written with Terry Deary (Horrible Histories’ creator) and Ciaran McConville, bring their show Barmy Britain to the Pleasance, taking information from across the books to show some of the craziest figures who have shaped our country’s past.
The show we are presented with is a pantomimic snapshot that ranges from the Romans to General Hague. The focus of the stage is a large wicker basket which contains all sorts of gruesome props and costumes the two person cast (Alison Fitzjohn and Neal Foster) use as a screen to flit between characters from Britain’s past and two Victorian lampposts frame the set. Throughout they are accompanied by a soundtrack of gruesome noises, explosions and some very fitting mood music in this hour long performance. There are some good touches in this show, for instance a washing line strung between the lampposts bearing clothes on black sheets for one sketch, then the sheets being torn off to reveal blood-stained white sheets when we move to the Crimea, then these in turn being ripped to reveal clean sheets reflecting the changes to hygiene practices made by Florence Nightingale. There is good use of lighting and effects too, with blue gels and stage smoke giving Burke and Hare a menacing pallor and flashes reflecting the bombs of a battlefield being particularly affecting.
This is a well-produced show with high production values. However, there isn’t much in here for those already familiar with the history from the books or TV programmes. The detail is sometimes inaccurate, for instance the perpetuation of the myth that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand, and the pantomime style is light on content and heavy on participation. For younger children this is great, but they are unlikely to get many of the pop-culture analogies and settings, being too young to be familiar with the likes of The Apprentice. An acknowledgement of our location is appreciated, as they include stories like that of Jessie King the baby farmer from Edinburgh. At times the facts are bluntly put, effective in the way that they strike dumb all members of the audience in the horror of what actually happened, but altogether this production feels more like a way to wring more money from the Horrible Histories’ name rather than actually engage children with our past.
What the Kids Say: It’s Barmy, very very Barmy. I liked the songs; they were groovy. Barmy Britain makes the rules.