As I entered the theatre, pen and notebook in hand, I could not help but observe I was neither a child nor a parent, a face out of place amongst the sea of school children. A moment of crisis; am I finally too old, too serious and boring to enjoy Terry Deary’s excellent Horrible Histories series, a gory education in the past that includes a BAFTA award winning children’s show and a million selling book series? Of course not!
Though us students may not be the target audience for The Birmingham Stage Company’s brilliant exploration of Roman, Saxon and Viking history, the show featured a range of humour to suit all ages. With surprisingly sophisticated dark comedy, gratuitous violence and singing rabbits to boot, Horrible Histories: Incredible Invaders is a guilt-free treat for impressionable young and jaded old alike.
Firstly, the scope of the play is truly impressive. The attempt to squash 1000 years of British history into below two hours of stage time is gutsy in itself. Horrible Histories not only succeed in this aim, but had the entire audience glued to their seats throughout. The story is a pantomime romp through early British history narrated by Mavis, a long-suffering Celt who can barely keep up with her homeland being endlessly pillaged. Never dry or didactic, the play soon takes a turn for the Pythonesque. The ensemble cast are fantastic; four other actors play weather-forecasting druids bothering Mavis, before performing an off-beat musical number about slavery as Roman soldiers.
The audience can barely keep up as the cast effortlessly switches between dozens of roles as the play moves through time, yet the air is of controlled chaos over utter pandemonium. Certainly the characters are simple; a band of German-techno loving Saxons or marauding kilt-clad Scots, yet the pacing and panto-posturing of the actors keeps the proceedings lively and the pace punchy.
On the subject of troublesome Scots, the writers have snuck in a surprisingly serious undercurrent of on the nose satire and plenty of geeky jokes for the adults. Commenting on the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, a sarcastic Scotsman sneaks in references to both the impending general election and Pink Floyd’s The Wall – a bizarre double whammy of cultural referencing. We’re also treated to some wonderfully dark parallels between British and Roman colonialism via the medium of musical theatre, an impressively bonkers feat in any play.
The play’s second half boasts ‘3D Bogglevision’, a chance for the audience to don 3D glasses and have the stage show come to life. The gimmick starts out fun, with a snake reaching out over the audience and biting the improbably named Viking ‘Ragnar Hairy-Trousers’. Naturally, this is followed by his longboat’s figurehead leading an inspiring singalong. Predictably, the proceedings become repetitive, and eventually the flying heads and gore wore thin. Even the most bloodthirsty eight year old was left cold, whilst the onslaught was all too much for the younger kids. This is where the show fell down; in comparison with its TV counterpart, it sometimes felt slapdash and repetitive, though never managing to lose our interest.
Despite misgivings about gimmicky staging or repetitive tricks, it’s hard to react with anything other than glee to Horrible Histories: Incredible Invaders, be it childish or otherwise. Its brilliant blending of pantomime mayhem and cynical satire was passionately delivered and thoroughly entertaining throughout.
The play’s female narrator explored a relevant range of topics in a field dominated by dead white men, whilst the play’s humorous slant on immigration bringing us together felt surprisingly pertinent, despite being rooted in the distant past. The kids were entertained, and the adults were threatened into singing ridiculous songs about place-names. History teachers of Britain, take your notes!