(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on 14 December 2015)
So you thought that Christmas had always been a festival of jollity and good will, did you? Wrong. Terry Deary, the Birmingham Stage Company and Derby Theatre knock a number of fallacies on their collective heads with Horrible Christmas., a seasonal addition to the Horrible Histories series.
We begin with a stage dominated by a Christmas tree with presents heaped at its foot. The young daughter of the house cannot stop herself from opening the wrapped boxes,in spite of her parents’ strictures. One of them reveals a book; “Books aren’t proper presents” this very 21st century miss declares.
Lurking in the background is Sydney Clause (Andrew Vincent), the antithesis of Santa Claus, that plump red-robed white-bearded figure so familiar to us. Deary and his Horrible Histories have perfected the delicate art of injecting information into unreceptive brains – and making it stick. So we learn that the red clothes are of recent origin and that the legendary Green Man was probably his forerunner.
But when did Christmas as we know really begin? Answer – Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. We slither back in time to the Cromwellian interregnum with an uptight Mrs Cromwell demolishing all the pagan and papist connotations of 25 December. Cue “We are the Puritans”, sung with Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard and daughter Elizabeth, all well under control by their wife and mother.
Jollity is (sort of) restored with Charles II but rigour rears its head when we go back to Henry VIII and his fifth wife Katherine Howard. “I’m wicked, I’m nasty” sings the king with soon-to-be-beheaded Katherine agreeing. This Henry is definitely from the Sid James mould. The real St Nicholas, bishop of Myra early in the fourth century, gives a dowry to a poor girl.
And so to the beginning of the story of gifts. Gold (for power), frankincense (for worship) and the myrrh of funeral rites are offered at a manger in Bethlehem. Sydney Clause, his abetting reindeer Rudolph and his sparky adversaries Shirley Holmes and Zoe Watson return to their proper spheres. The presents under the Christmas tree are now miraculously all intact.
It’s directed by Neal Foster and well designed by Jacqueline Trousdale. Matthew Scott is the composer and the extremely hard-working cast is Jo Mousley, Erika Poole, Caroline Rogers, Katy Withers, Martin Atkinson, Christopher Chilton, Jim Low and Andrew Vincent.
Horrible Christmas runs at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge until 9 January.