Tag Archives: Horrible Histories

Horrible Christmas

(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.

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Filed under Pantomimes & seasonal shows, Reviews 2015

Groovy Greeks

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 23 October)

The voice of the king of the gods, Zeus himself, is a fitting introduction to this latest addition to the Birmingham Stage Company’s repertoire of Horrible Histories. Appropriately enough, he’s Terry Deary, actor-author of the original series of books.

In Groovy Greeks Zeus is confronted by a modern family. There’s Mum (Laura Dalgleish), bright-as-a-button daughter Alice (Hannah Boyce) who is just as inquisitive as her Lewis Carroll namesake, somewhat know-all Dad (Charlie Buckland) and stroppy son Rob (Ashley Bowden).

They are invited (threatened? challenged?) by Zeus to enter the world of the highly competitive ancient Greeks. Troy and its ten-year siege is the appropriate beginning. Rob confuses Homer the poet with the Simpsons’ patriarch which allows for some clever cartoon-derived headgear designed, as are the projections by Jacqueline Trousdale.

The harsh, military-focussed city-state of Sparta, the Olympic Games and the rise of Athens are the next to tax our quartet’s survival skills. Slavery was a fact of everyday life in the ancient world; there’s a timely statistical reminder that it’s still prevalent today.

Horrible Histories on stage wouldn’t live up to their name without Bogglevision, as devised by Whizzbang 3D Production. The Minotaur lurks in a distorted labyrinth to claim his tribute of young human flesh. His vanquishing by Theseus is attended by some fright-inducing spiders as well as other monsters.

Both the historical encounters with the Persian empire – Leonides’ doomed but heroic defence of the Thermopylae Pass and the vital sea battle at Salamis are alive with hurled spears and rocks (I challenge you not to duck!), the foam and hiss of oar-beaten waves and the crunch of armoured prows caving in wooden triremes.

Tere’s a hilarious Britain’s Got Talentt-style contests for the audience’s favour with Aphrodite’s sexy show-girl routine easily out-voting Poseidon’s trident-waving rock star or Athena’s pop singer attempt. Our time travellers return to the present-day having learned a lot about the past and the way in which it continues to inform the present.

You see, history really can be great fun. It just takes imagination.

Groovy Greeks runs in repertoire with Incredible Invaders at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 24 Octover and also at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 26 and 31 October.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015

Incredible Invaders


 
(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 October)

 

Horrible Histories, in print, on television or – best of all – live on stage throw a particularly well-disguised punch at their public. You learn something while enjoying the experience. Take Incredible Invaders, for instance.

England from 56BC to that final lethal invasion of AD1066 covers a lot of ground, both literally and metaphorically. Linking it all is an outspoken British girl called Mavis (Hannah Boyce) who has the audience immediately on her side as her potential sacrifice by the Druids is interrupted by the Roman army (well, just two soldiers) – but who can afford a cast of thousands these days?

Neal Foster has written the scripts as well as directing the fast-moving action. But it’s the work of set, costume and screen image designer Jacqueline Trousdale that really takes centre stage. The projections give us a three-dimension set even before the second half intervention of the Whizzbang Bogglevision sequences.

After the Romans (in retrospect probably the best of the invaders) and the suitably wild revolt by Boudicca (Laura Dalgleish) come the Saxons with some particularly nasty execution practices (Foster doesn’t veer away from these). Ashley Bowden and Charlie Buckland stand in for Hengest and Horsa as the fragmented Britannia succumbs to a different sort of brute strength.

The Vikings, those Norsemen who also colonised Normandy, arrive in their longboats, one of which has a marvellous, slightly camp talking figurehead. King Alfred (Bowden) now takes centre stage with his possibly mythical cake-burning (Arthur has already been dismissed as mere legend). We may think of him as a good and just ruler but Foster makes clear that late 9th century justice had its own savageries.

And so to the Normans and the Battle of Hastings, flowing in Bogglevision straight out of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adults in the mid-week audience may have thought that their attendance was something of a chore. My impression is that they revelled in it all just as much as the children did.

Incredible Invaders plays in repertory with Groovy Greeks at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 20 October and at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 27 and 31 October.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2015