Review: Horrible Histories Barmy Britain

Posted on 28 February 2012 Written by

From the moment I entered the Garrick theatre the excited squeals of children were audible. They had seemingly come expecting the charming wit of Terry Deary and the joyous mirth of the television counterpart of Horrible Histories. What we were greeted with, however, was Horrible Histories Barmy Britain; a very competently performed, well-executed but badly written show. The demographic for this production was obviously children aged around ten, but there were moments of charming pantomime-like sketches offset with cheap cultural references made to fit in with the historical point been made, so ‘Who Wants to a Millionaire’ became ‘Who Wants To Blow Up Parliament’ and we are given two very basic facts about Guy Fawkes. Then in another scene the story of a baby ‘farmer’ was told, with the audio of a screaming, dying child played over the top, this was both chilling and upsetting given the performance around it was quite comic. The overall tone of the piece kept shifting and very unnecessarily so, given the comic moments received the best reaction from the excitable audience.

I am aware that Horrible Histories is meant to be gory at times, but this wasn’t playful gore this was one of two extremes, either being too macabre or too light hearted. In reality the writing should have been in between the two, much like the books are, and if it had been this would have been a fantastic show. The sound designed by Nick Sagar was (apart from the baby scream) flawless, conjuring up objects and scenes with masterful timing. The lighting by Jason Taylor was a marvel, moving us quickly yet effectively through different emotions and time periods and this was further improved by Jaqueline Trousdale simplistic yet fabulous costumes and set. Finally the duo of Lauryn Redding and Benedict Martin were great at creating new characters at a moment’s notice. The issue was, as previously stated, some of the material was lacking. Many of the songs by Matthew Scott were clever and witty, and often these were the moments laced with the most historical interest, but the ones that involved audience participation served nothing more than to show how disinterested some of the children had become, with few people joining in. Bizarrely, both parents and children all around me began talking amongst themselves during these frankly, awkward moments.

What should have been a brilliant production didn’t live up to expectations, the charm and tongue-in-cheek humour of Deary was often missing or failed to translate onto the stage. The script should have been between the two previously mentioned extremes and actually included more historical facts, one of the main draws of Horrible Histories is it teaches as it entertains but in this production there was hardly anything to take away from it. Worst of all, it only lasted an hour, and the dissatisfaction of the audience was made very obvious with children loudly complaining to their parents “that was so short!” and they were absolutely right.

Horrible Histories is booking at The Garrick Theatre until 1 September. For more information and tickets, see the Garrick Theatre website.

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Michael Bretail Says:

    Has this review been written as some sort of joke? Clearly the “reviewer” has no great understanding of this production or who the target audience was. This is only backed up by the glowing reviews across the broadsheets. It’s a shame that I just found this on twitter!

    I went to see this with my young twins age seven who are both at home singing “Divorced, beheaded, Died….” and thoroughly enjoyed it. As an introduction to theatre and indeed to History… many of the subjects covered they already knew about, this production is perfect for capturing imaginations.

    This review is all over the place. You complain about the writing and tone of the piece changing then summarise that the show is too short?!
    I fear had the show being a constant romp of “Panto” you would have poo pooed it for playing dumb to kids. Children are much more capable of dealing with complex issues and stories than this reviewer gives them credit for.

    Upon leaving the theatre this weekend there was nothing but cheers and smiling faces who had been to see something fun and exciting and secretly promoted an interest into their country.

    Fortunately for the company who produced this, this review is well out of line.

  2. S. Randlesome Says:

    Have you not read the review Michael? I mean no disrespect to you at all,you are entitled to your opinion, but I’d like to point out that a review is also an opinion. You say the reviewer has no idea who the target audience is yet it clearly says: “The demographic for this production was obviously children aged around ten.”

    Also you say that he would have ‘poo-pooed’ it had it been panto but he says that the pantomime sections were “charming”.

    I have seen this production recently and I must say I agree with the reviwer. I thought that the production fell far short of the usual high-standard of The Birmingham Stage Company. I saw Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians some years ago and took my young brother to see it. We both loved it; it was witty and fun and entertaining. Barmy Britain was quite frankly, not. It’s also interesting to notice that the section about the Tudors was almost EXACTLY the same as in the Terrible Tudors production, showing just how unimaginative the writers have been.

    I do not think that your comments are justified in regards to this review which is entirely fair and surprisingly objective. As previously stated it is an opinion, it is great that your children liked it but, sadly my experience was similar to the reviewer’s. The children in the audience when I went to see the production looked so excited at the start of the play but by the end they were very very sombre. This simply didn’t hold water compared to the company’s previous productions.

  3. Michael Bretail Says:

    Hi Randlesome,

    Of course it’s opinion, that’s what theatre is. I’m just incredibly surprised at this review and how much it differs so damningly against it, where the broadsheets are raving. The Express publishing another 4 stars!

    I would suggest that the reviewer didn’t really enter into the spirit of things thats all, and that maybe younger people (16-24) are not really of the understanding of a younger audience (04-12) and what this show is all about.

    Intrestingly enough, I just re-read this review and it has been rewritten as originally it said the writing was not as good as Terry Deary, yet he wrote it.

    Thanks for discussing it.

  4. S. Randlesome Says:

    Just Also to point out that I read the review around the same time as you posted your comment. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed. And if it had that would be really awful journalism. :)

    Though Terry Deary is credited,Neal Foster & Ciaran McConville are also credited as writers so we cannot truly know how much of the piece he was responsible for. The beauty of theatre!

    I wouldn’t say that this is damning at all. The Guardian has given it 3 stars and said that it was not particularly imaginative. This is a broadsheet so does it count as an anomaly?

    As a young person myself I find it very harsh to say that we cannot understand a younger audience. Many of my peers, myself included, love Horrible Histories, we grew up with it and the fact that it is still being enjoyed by children suggests that we can relate to their sense of humour and what they like to see.

    From what I’ve heard about A Younger Theatre, reviewers have some say in what they go and see so surely the reviewer knew what he was going to be watching? Why would you watch something you knew wasn’t going to be to your taste?

    Anyway, that’s just what I think. Reviews are a merely a guide and it’s human nature to pick up on either negatives or positives depending on what we want to see.

  5. Michael Bretail Says:

    Yeah the review has definately changed… slightly, from that first tweet I picked up.

    The question you ask about “why would you watch something you knew wasn’t going to be to your taste?” Is a very good question that opens up an entire can of worms everywhere.

    In my opinion there is a danger of having too many reviews who all have wayward opinions, or two few reviewers like the Guardian where one person generates one voice.

  6. S. Randlesome Says:

    Opinion is opinion, who is to say what is wayward? We live in a supposedly free society. No form of journalism can be entirely objective no matter how hard you try. We are all (or all should be) capable of independent thought, the whole point of a review is to see what someone else thought of it and then make your own conclusions from it. I don’t think numbers come into it at all.

    The media is tricky, you have to have a certain amount of ‘saviness’ to be able to see how a journalist is trying to manipualte thought, there’s no denying it, it’s what happens; it’s all in the interpretation, I know this is quite a post-modernist thing to say but we take whatever meaning we want from articles and reviews and unless you really look deeply into the semiotics of the language you will rarely be 100% accurate in interpreting to what the author intended.

  7. JH Says:

    Agree with the review. Saw this today, and my children, who LOVE the TV shows, hated the theatre performance, especially the baby farming bit. The family next to us were also disgusted by that section. A very disappointing show, and most definitely not worth a visit.

  8. DD Says:

    The show was only an hour long, and did not include the people seen on TV. It was good and entertaining but we came away disappointed. It was too short, making it somewhat expensive.

  9. Penny Crayon Says:

    Saw this wonderful production with my class yesterday as a treat to end the term.

    It was fantastic!! Seeing 36 young faces fixated on what was happening on stage and LEARNING history was just fantastic.

    Yes it wasn’t the TV cast but then the promotional material online doesn’t suggest it is!

    Fortunately my class all of whom returned excitable after the show have done some fantastic work on History in the classroom.


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