Trying to entertain a group of children is quite a task. Trying to teach a group of children is a bigger one. Trying to do both is certainly a challenge, but done well and it will be remembered with great fondness. Such is the case for Terry Deary’s beloved series of non-fiction children’s books Horrible Histories, which dive into the gory and glorious facts of the past. The BAFTA award-winning TV adaptation proved that the books were perfect for performance, and that they could be silly as well as educational. As such, this stage production directed by Benedict Martin & Neal Foster had some big boots to fill.
With a cast of three (Simon Nock, Izaak Cainer, and Lisa Allen), the roles of various kings, queens, peasants, and executions are switched between them. Despite having the generously-sized King’s Theatre at their disposal, most of the action takes place around a cart centre stage. The staging feels cheap; both creatively and in terms of spectacle. Remove the animated screen behind them and you are left with what is effectively a fairly dry Fringe show, or a skit at the the London Dungeon.
What spectacle Horrible Histories does offer is 3D effects on screen in its second half. For better or worse these are only fleetingly used to pelt fire computer-generated fireworks at the audience, in a scene seemingly contrived solely to show off this effect. The show mostly relies on a simple but irritating formula; a date, a name, and a fact will be speedily explained to the audience by one of the cast, after which one or two of them will make an obnoxious sound or gesture, which then be repeated until it finally gains a laugh from its young audience. Mix in some over-used slap-stick sound effects and a couple of musical numbers and you have a show.
In fairness, the musical numbers are jolly and memorable, and the cast do the best with what they have. They’re undeniably energetic and whole-heartedly do their best to entertain. The trouble is there is very little that can be done to save the show from its direction and writing. The explanation of the Catholic and Protestant churches using the simile of football teams shows a cringe-worthy lapse in awareness of social context. The jokes for the adults (such as one about Donald Trump being fat) are both outdated and completely miss the point of their subject matter. Casual references to icons such as Doctor Who and Horrid Henry scream of a writer clutching at straws to fill the 1 and a half hour run time.
The most I can say in defence of Horrible Histories: Terrible Tudors is that it fills an afternoon/evening and is sufficiently entertaining for children. The number of shows for children and families is growing, and there ought not to be space for theatre that merely aims to kill time. It’s trying, tiresome, and truly, truly terrible. One star.
Whispers from the crowd:
"I enjoyed the 3D glasses and the explosions!"
"I was expecting a bigger cast when they came out, but actually the small cast were fantastic"