Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain at the Garrick Theatre
The Horrible Histories series is a well-known one, having gained praise in the mid-90s for its alternative approach to teaching primary school level history. This alternative approach focused on the more ghastly facts of historical events as a way for children to humorously engage with what can sometimes be a boring subject, particularly for a primary school child. I personally remember finding the Horrible Histories books extremely engrossing. The books often included different materials which could be felt, and even more horrible were the smell patches designed to emulate the stench of the common Roman cesspool or disease-ridden World War I trenches.
Barmy Britain stays loyal to the series’ traditions. Hosted by a duo made up of Rex (played by Neal Foster) and Queenie (Alison Fitzjohn), we are taken on a gory trip through British history, moving through the ages at lightning speed. One moment you will find yourself repulsed by grisly details of child murders in Victorian England, then suddenly warped into World War I being reminded of how many British soldiers lost their lives in battle. Sitting amongst a crowd full of children enjoying their half-term break, I was initially overwhelmed by the frank lucidity of facts and stories, but when you are surrounded by at least 100 children laughing at death and murder, you trade your shocked gasp for a cheeky smile and you too will laugh. If they’re laughing, how bad can it be?
Rex and Queenie are able to serve these accounts of a diseased and murderous Britain due to a delicate balance between important historical information and excellent comedic stage energy. Both performers possess voices which are not only diverse when singing, but are able to perform and project different characters with different accents so entertainingly that the audience have to reply with laughter – whether adult or child. The wide range of colourful costumes evoke a fancy dress-type theme, further assisting the duo’s animated stage presence.
Another way Barmy Britain makes history more accessible for children is its comedic use of modern culture. Guy Fawkes becomes a baffled contestant on Who Wants to Blow Up Parliament? and resorts to asking the audience for help on how to hatch his infamous plot. This continues with World War I General Douglas Haig appearing on The Apprentice, who is consequently fired by Alan Sugar for causing too many casualties. The show is wrapped up with a final song claiming that Britain is still Barmy. With smart and subtle references, including the NHS and recent events such as the recession and bank bail-outs, Barmy Britain ends on a thought-provoking satirical note.
An excellent and accessible slice of edutainment for any age.