Review: ‘Horrible Histories: More Best of Barmy Britain’, Belgrade Theatre

Horrible Histories: More Best of Barmy Britain‘, Belgrade Theatre

   “Bar-my Brit-ain breaks the rules!” 

  Best known for, blood and guts and gore, the team at Horrible Histories present ‘Horrible Histories: More Best of Barmy Britain‘, which chronologically explores the lives of some of the most famous (and infamous) characters in British history, from the Roman invasion, right the way through to the First World War. Hugely entertaining and acutely informative, our past is no longer a mystery in this never-before-toured special of: Hor-rible Hist-or-ies!

  Blackadder meets Carry On (…and Masterchef, Undercover Boss, The Fast Show, TOWIE and The Apprentice!) in this latest live show from The Birmingham Stage Company, which proves that ‘Barmy Britain’ really does break the rules.

Rotten Romans in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company

  We begin in Ancient Britain with the Rotten Romans as, contestants on MankyChef, they prepare some of their finest delicacies – matured fish guts and roasted rat – explaining how they would vomit after a meal, in order to make room for more food (an idea that could catch on…). We then learnt of the origins of place names in Britain, discovering which towns and villages (ending in ‘-by’), were inhabited by the Vicious Vikings when they settled in Britain, and the audience were divided in two by one such Viking, and a Smashing Saxon, and all proved their mettle in a brutal singing competition. 

  Focus is then placed on Early Modern British History, beginning with the Terrible Tudors. Queen Elizabeth I goes undercover (by donning a pair of sunglasses) to see what life was really like for people living under her rule, interviewing a whipping boy, and a Groom of the Stool, who had more than a hint of Kenneth Williams about him. In a brand new sketch, Liz comes face-to-face with the wordy William Shakespeare and, after telling him that nobody can understand his plays, proceeds to talk to him via a compilation of his own best-known phrases, before the sketch ends with Shakespeare’s version of The Black Eyed Peas ‘I Gotta Feeling’. 

Vicious Vikings and Smashing Saxons in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company

  We are invited to view the wares at The Suit You (Tudor) Tailors in a hilarious parody of a popular sketch of British sitcom, ‘The Fast Show’, set in an era where the colour and fabric of an item of clothing dictated a person’s rank, evidence of the Elizabethan societal structure. A child is invited to join the actors on stage, and is put into the stocks for attempting to wear a colour of the nobility. 

  We learn what life was like for Puritans under the Protectorate of ‘Orrible Oliver Cromwell. An aspect of our history children might be unfamiliar with, we here of a time when Christmas, singing and dancing were banned. However, the crowning of Charles II in the period of the Slimy Stuarts saw the Restoration of the Monarchy. Every inch the ‘Merry Monarch’, the utterly Cavalier King Charles “came to get down” (…jump up, jump up, jump around). 

Queen Elizabeth I in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company

  Transported to the era of the Gorgeous Georgians, we “Stand and Deliver” to notorious highwayman Dick Turpin, one child in the audience parting with his teddy bear to save his own skin. We learn of Turpin’s early life as a butcher in Essex, before he joins The (Only Way is) Essex Gang and goes “ON THE ROB!”. The rest of the gang arrested, Turpin moves to York and lives under the alias John Palmer. Arrested for shooting a chicken, however, he is discovered by a postman who recognises his handwriting, and is hung. 

  Fast-forward to the Vile Victorians’ cholera outbreak of 1854, Broad Street, Soho, water pipes becoming infected as a result of being built next to a cesspool, with all manner of human waste seeping into the water supply, with devastating results. John Snow, a leader in medical hygiene, conducted an investigation to rectify the problem, but the council merely responded, “you know nothing, John Snow”. Or something along those lines.

Terrible Tudors in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. “Suits thou, Sir!”. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company

  We end with a boardroom meeting between Field Marshal Douglas Haig and Lord Alan Sugar during the Frightful First World War. Respectful of this harrowing subject, the team at Horrible Histories are also aware of when NOT to make a joke, and offered some rather distressing truths regarding the war, particularly the Battle of the Somme, which saw 60,000 men slaughtered on just the first day. However, much like Blackadder, satire was then employed to joke at the expense of those in command, the “bloody” Somme referred to as a “bloody shambles”. It comes as no surprise that Haig was fired, and he timidly thanked Lord Sugar for the opportunity. 

  Despite the abundance of colourfully vibrant characters, the cast consisted of just two actors, Benedict Martin and Pip Chamberlin. All-singing and all-dancing, they slipped seamlessly between their characters, distinguishable by their differing accents and characteristics. It was apparent they were having as much fun on stage as the audience were watching them, expanding on jokes without forewarning each other in rehearsal, which only enhanced the comic aspect of the show. Quick-witted, they thought on their feet and responded accordingly, to both each other and audience interaction. Both were fully engaging and outrageously funny. With great chemistry, each complemented the other perfectly, bouncing off one another with wit and flair, a perfect comic duo! 

Pip Chamberlin and Benedict Martin in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Belgrade Theatre

  Two costume racks were located on either side of the stage on which hung the majority of costumes, wigs and hats to be used during the show. Whilst allowing for a quick and simple transition between historical eras, the decrease in costumes on the rack also acted as an indicator of how much of the show was left. The actors, during a gap in dialogue, would smoothly change into a new jacket, or would introduce the upcoming period whilst changing. For those more extravagant, flamboyant costumes (ie. Elizabeth I and Charles II), actor Chamberlain would slip into a tent to don his costume. The costume changes did nothing to affect the pace of the show, which ran very smoothly. 

  Although it’s no easy task to infuse entertainment with education, the Horrible Histories team have certainly done it again with this effortless live show. Bursting with slapstick humour and slick jokes, the show is very informative, the facts coming as thick and fast as the jokes themselves, thriving off audience participation. With their cleverly written sketches and catchy songs, the show puts to bed certain misconceptions we may have about our historical figures, (such as Dick Turpin’s legendary ride from London to York), and sets out to assert the truth, doing so in a way that leaves its young audiences squealing with unending delight. Not only do audiences enjoy the show, but they also learn something, an important purpose of theatre being to educate. It was heart-warming to hear children singing the songs they had learned in the theatre’s foyer after the show. 

Puritans breaking the rules in Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company

  An abridged navigation of British history, coming in at just over one hour, the show was perfectly timed to both grab, and hold, the attention of the many children in the audience, who were captivated for the duration of the show. However, great family entertainment, the show was sprinkled with one or two cheeky gags thrown in for the pleasure of the adults, with several satirical references to such timely subjects as British politics, Theresa May and Brexit, which means they too could sit back and enjoy themselves.

  A fabulous production with a well-chosen coverage of historical eras, ‘Horrible Histories: More Best of Barmy Britain’ showcased some of the best and worst moments in British history, exploring how they shaped the future of Britain. A wonderful celebration of our country’s history, this thoroughly enjoyable, family-friendly production was beautifully barmy!

“Tall tales, atrocious acts,
We gave you all the fearsome facts,
The ugly truth, no glam or glitz,
We showed you all the juicy bits,
Gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,
Stuff they don’t teach you at school,
The past is no longer a mystery,

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Photo credit: Birmingham Stage Company


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