I am so excited by the prospect of a live rendition of Horrible Histories, that I have to tell all my twenty-something housemates. We organise an outing.
We’re all muddling through our post-graduation lives as reluctant members of Generation Y. Many fully formed adults often frown upon our generation, condemning our technology dependence, selfie obsessions and our shrinking attention spans that now only have room for infinite scrolling across our new digital universe comprised of various social media platforms. But I want to push back against their frown, for we are a generation that lives off of light-hearted curiosity. When the Horrible Histories books were released and its legendary televised iteration was produced, we were the target audience. We carry Terry Deary’s legacy around with us to lighten up dry days of heavy academic and university work, searching for the unexpected in times gone by.
So we bundle into the Weston Studio at 4pm, a gaggle of overgrown children, but we see that the rest of the seats are packed with all stages and ages of life, from bubbly babies to a chuckling elderly couple. We watch history burst out of the dressing up box, bursting many of our eardrums in the process. Birmingham Stage Company has been producing live renditions of Horrible Histories since 2005, and now they’re teaming up with Deafinitely Theatre to tell the overlooked tales of those who couldn’t hear in history – stories of deafness as well as determination. From the suppression of deaf people in Ancient Greece, to the deafened achievements of key cultural figures, to the development of British Sign Language. Sound historical sources and creativity collide to show that while these figures were hard of hearing, their voices are finally being heard.
The three strong company hold a greater bond than most performers we see on stage. Made up of two deaf actors, Fifi Garfield and Nadeem Islam, they work in reciprocity with Naomi Gray, who is a hearing BSL/English interpreter. Depending on the needs of your viewership, Garfield and Islam embody and transform Gray’s words into sign-language, or Gray translates sign-language into spoken word. Their interactions are slick as they whisk us through the last few thousand years of deaf history, from the ridiculous restrictions and rules imposed upon deaf people in Ancient Greece, all the way up to deaf soldiers during World War One. We learn not just of deaf men, but also women, from Queen Alexandra of Denmark, to deaf suffragette Kate Harvey.
Head bobbing songs pulse with the same wit and endearing cheesiness of the original TV series, and the script often holds a finely tuned pixar-esque balance of clever commentary for the adults with slapstick ridiculousness that has the kids creasing. That being said, the show does take a while to hit its stride. I’m craving songs from the very start to punctuate the action and characters, and would like each sequence of each story to let rip a little more into the ridiculous. Moments where the actors break out into the audience and get the kids involved make for the most collaborative and captivating parts of the production. Sparkling with spontaneity; perhaps they could take the opportunity to teach the non-deaf audience members how to do some sign language themselves.
Nevertheless, it is warming to know that the children watching this show are growing up in a time where these stories are being rescued from the amnesias and oversights of the patriarchal historical narrative, a version of events that often refuses to hear beyond their male and able bodies. Deafinitely Theatre reshapes and sublimates the awkwardness of stage silence, theatrical gaps that we are too often afraid of; the Dreadful Deaf let the quietness speak.
The final song comes to a close, and the audience ripples with claps and sings through waves. If only all history lessons were like this.
Horrible Histories: Dreadful Deaf is playing at the Bristol Old Vic until 1 June. For more information, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.