Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain at Cambridge Arts Theatre
Horrible Histories, who celebrate 30 horrible years in 2023, started out as a very successful children’s book series penned by one of the world’s bestselling children’s author Terry Deary. The popular books were first brought to the stage in 1995 by the Birmingham Stage Company, who still continue to bring a variety of Deary’s works to life to this day.
Being the mother of a 12-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, I knew of Horrible Histories from watching many an episode of the TV series with them. I must admit I sometimes had to look away when they went really gory. People really did some yukky things in the past! So I thought I knew of what to expect from Barmy Britain.
Upon entering the auditorium, you are met with a stage that has a few props and clothes hung on two tall wooden fixtures, no fancy back drop or sides. Just a brilliantly lit up stage and props. The play is performed by just two actors, and as soon as Alasdair Buchan and Neal Foster enter the stage they grip you with their excellent comedic timing and stage presence.
Barmy Britain takes us through the history of the Royals in Britain starting as far back as Alfred the Great (He’s really great) all the way up to our current King, with a few funny nods to current political affairs along the way.
Set and costume designer Jacqueline Trousdale has done an amazing job of creating set pieces and costumes that not only allow the actors to change quickly but also bring to life the person they are portraying. The set is minimal yet very cleverly thought out, so that the actors can move things around with ease to recreate another time in history. The set and costumes alongside the brilliant acting and various voices provided by both actors makes for a very entertaining 70 minutes.
All of the costume changes are performed on stage and are done with such excellent pace and have been brilliantly choreographed by Kenn Oldfield, so it does not break up the performance one bit. In fact it leaves you wanting eagerly to see what they will be wearing next! Alasdair dressed as Queen Elizabeth 1st is one of my personal favorites tonight.
The musical pieces, that are sung brilliantly, are not too long but are very catchy and fun, and really do add to the overall enjoyment of the production. The timing of the sound effects to the actor’s performance is sublime; getting the stage to creak at the exact time the actor put his toe to the stage is done so well that you believed it was the stage making that noise. I can imagine how much hard work has been put in to getting something that looks so simple – so accurate.
One of the best things about this performance is, not just the fun way that you learn facts about the history of Britain, but also how much of a child-friendly performance it is. Neil Foster, stage play writer and director, has done an excellent job of making it not just something for them to watch in silence, he has created something they are encouraged to actively participate in. They can sing, cheer, clap and laugh out loud, all done without impacting on the enjoyment of others watching the performance. This show is a fantastic introduction to theatre, for those who may struggle to sit still for a longer, more traditional, set up.
As an adult going to watch a play, that is aimed at children, there is always the trepidation of will I actually enjoy this? However Barmy Britain is one of those pieces that the whole family will truly enjoy. Not many things make me laugh out loud but this show most certainly does, especially the pieces with Queen Elizabeth and Edward de Vere and also the Scotts! Hilarious!
Both my son and I thoroughly enjoy Barmy Britain this evening and definitely want to watch another one of the other Horrible History plays when they come to town.
Oh, and for those who have watched the TV series and think that Horrible Histories may be a bit too disgusting for them to watch, fear not! This production, although they have left the nasty bits in still, they are on the funny side rather than the ‘I have to look away now’ side!