Sunday, January 6, 2013

'Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain' at the Garrick Theatre, 4th January 2013

I'm a huge fan of 'Horrible Histories'.  The CBBC TV show is the single best sketch show that the BBC has put out in a long time.  Shows that pander to both children and adults tend to miss the mark for both audiences, but 'Horrible Histories', with its twin ambitions of historical accuracy and comedy easily achieves both.  The show springs from the equally entertaining series of books by Terry Deary which take the most bloody, demented and just plain odd events in history and presents them in a hilarious tongue-in-cheek manner.  

At its worst, history feels staid and irrelevant; textbooks filled with stiffly posed portraits and endless lists of dates.  I've always held that the fascination of history is examining how very real people who were much like us dealt with their environments and society.  Presenting it as something inaccessible and preserved in aspic drains much of the excitement from it, rendering the lives of those that came before us as alien.  'Horrible Histories' aims to blow away the dust from history, by translating these distant events into farce. 

Neal Foster and Alison Fitzjohn
This stage version is a two-man show performed by Neal Foster and Alison Fitzjohn, who transform themselves into characters from the length and breadth of British history, from the historically famous to the surprisingly obscure.  Neither of these two appear in the CBBC show, which may disappoint some members of the audience expecting a live version of that show.  Even so, this production does bear many of the trappings of it's popular cousin.  

The show takes the form of a series of sketches, presented chronologically as we progress through the history of 'Barmy Britain'.  So, after a short introductory song, we launch into a Roman cooking show parody.  This format will be familiar to anyone who knows the TV show.  If you're learning about the Romans and the subject of food comes up, chances are a dormouse is about to meet a rather sticky end in the next few minutes.  One thing you quickly notice is the seamlessness between both performers and their off-stage sound effects.  As, say, a dormouse is gutted, there's a perfectly timed squishy sound effect.  It all looks effortless as they toss stuff around to each other, changing costumes on the fly with a charmingly ramshackle costume kit.  The overall effect is the illusion of anarchy on stage while maintaining an invisibly strict discipline.

Guy Fawkes on 'Who Wants to Blow Up Parliament'
Thisshow, in keeping with its source material, doesn't shy away from the scatological.  Within the first ten minutes or so someone has inadvertently brushed their teeth with a poo-covered stick, to screams of disgust from the children in the audience.  I wholeheartedly approve of this interpretation of history: the past was an incredibly dirty place.  If you're getting children to imagine the disgust and grossness that people lived with, then you're getting them to empathise with past generations, something that as far as I'm concerned history is all about.

This show is only about an hour long, so we touch on the 'Greatest hits' of British history one after another.  Beginning with the Romans, we skip forward a millennia and have a quick sketch about the sack of Lindisfarne Monastery by the Vikings, before jumping another 500 years ahead and onto the wives of Henry VIII.  

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
One aspect of pop history that always gives me pause is the romanticising of some genuinely horrible events.  My (least) favourite example is the cottage industry surrounding Jack the Ripper, the violent deaths of some poverty-stricken sex workers being exploited to sell a load of tat in the East End.  So, in this sketch when we're presented with a cheeky, cheery Anne Boleyn asking the audience whether she should tell Henry VIII that she doesn't want to marry him because he's fat and his breath smells I feel more sorry for her than amused.  Maybe I'm being a bit too soft here, after all, the life of Anne Boleyn is impossibly remote from my own but even so, I was dreading a series of jokes about her death.  A death which may have happened nearly 500 years ago, but is still the death of a terrified woman who'd suffered a series of miscarriages, and was consequently dragged to the execution block and murdered.

I shouldn't have been so worried, as what this production excels in is abrupt changes in tone. So when Henry VIII is suddenly chasing Anne Boleyn around the stage with a sword things quickly become a quiet and serious as her head is removed from her body.  From this point on, the sketches do begin to take on a surprisingly grim tone.  Don't get me wrong, this is still a show where the audience is encouraged to clap, sing and dance along to silly songs but there is a certain morbidity running through it.  

A sketch about hygiene in hospitals during the Crimean War.
During a sequence about children being hanged for petty crimes in the Victorian era the tone is generally lighthearted, but by now they're not afraid of scaring the audience a bit with a vivid description of what an execution at the Tyburn gallows entailed.  I suppose if you are to keep a roomful of children enthralled then scary stories are as appealing as grossing them out.  Even so, I was surprised at where they went for their next sketch.

Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer, a term which has little relevance today, but was quite rightly one of the most despicable crimes a person could be accused of in the Victorian era.  Dyers modus operandi was to hunt down expectant mothers who feared they'd be unable to care for their baby once it was born.  Presenting herself as a respectable married woman, she'd offer to take the child in and feed, clothe and raise it, in exchange for a small fee from the parents.  In actual fact the newborn would invariably find him or herself taped up in a paper bag and thrown into the Thames to die.  It's estimated she killed up to 400 newborn babies in this manner.  Pitch black stuff, and not exactly where you'd expect a lighthearted historical sketch show aimed at young children to go.

Dyer herself is depicted as a mad, old drunken Pythonesque crone, someone who wouldn't in a million years ever be considered a suitable guardian of a newborn.  While this does slightly unfairly shift some of the blame onto the bereaved parents, it's still very funny.  Even as she's tossing dolls off stage and cackling through a gin-soaked haze the audience still giggles away happily, demonstrating a their appetite for the macabre.

Field-Marshal Haig being taken to task by 'Alan Sugar'
We soon get to the the Great War, and a parody of 'The Apprentice'.  Field-Marshal Haig is being interviewed by Alan Sugar about his failure as a 'team leader'.  Sugar points out that he had the resources, he had the tools and berates him for throwing a man's life away for a centimetre of two of progress.  It's here that the show takes a surprisingly swift political turn; no punches are pulled when it comes to condemning the nightmare and human cost of the Somme.  One line that stood out for me was when Haig was condemned with the line, "They may put a statue of you on the Mall, but as far as I'm concerned you're a failure.  You're fired!".  It's an irreverent, Blackadderish anti-establishment swerve, and one that I think takes some of the parents by surprise.  We're asked to cheer or boo as to whether we think Field-Marshal Haig was a hero or not: nearly all the children boo (and so do I), but some adults cheer, they're lonely voices.  It must be slightly disheartening when a show as gregarious and friendly as this turns against you, especially if your children are happily booing along with everyone else.

After this comes a finale, where it's explained to us in song that although the past may appear incredibly weird, cruel and disgusting, if people were transported from there to the modern day they would find the way we live equally weird, cruel and disgusting.  It's a nice, light-hearted bit of historical relativism, and provides an opportunity for the production to get some digs in at what might be considered bizarre today.  It's telling what they choose, the first is the use of NHS Direct rather than visiting doctors for a diagnoses, the second is remote drone attacks in Pakistan!  Of all the places I expected 'Horrible Histories' to go, it wasn't here.  It manages to make a decent political point of the cruelty of inflicting death from halfway around the world where you can't hear the screams.  

I should stress that although this all sounds very serious, the show is consistently light-hearted, fun and entertaining.  It's pretty short, but manages to pack a lot of history into an hour.  Both the cast members play off each other fantastically, and even though the anarchy on stage is necessarily an illusion, it's a convincing illusion.  Furthermore, it's not just a collection of context-less trivia, nearly all the sketches have a point to make about of how history can be relevant to us in the present.  That, as far as I'm concerned, makes this show a success. 

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