Horrible Histories author Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown have been entertaining and educating children with their books for the past 18 years. Focusing on dramatic periods of history, and heavy on blood and guts, the books and resulting television series and board game have managed to engage children in a way that history teachers only wish they could.
The latest addition to the Horrible Histories franchise is a touring stage show, which tonight arrives at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. The tone is established early on. Focusing on the Tudors, the opening scenes revolve around three characters (the enigmatic Dr Dee and his bumbling cohorts, Drab and Dross) as they educate the audience on the grislier aspects of the era.
Beginning with the death of Richard III at Bosworth Field, Dee, Drab and Dross act out the principal moments in Tudor history, and the material, for those adults in the audience, is reminiscient of Black Adder and Monty Python.
Saucepans and kitchen utensils take the place of helmets and swords respectively, lending an air of imagination and silliness to proceedings – there is something downright hilarious about seeing a writhing Richard III pulling endless fish slices from his ‘wounded’ body.
While this would-be weaponry cuts down on the violence, the show certainly doesn’t shy away from a bit of viscera – the very next scene sees the entire audience acting as jury at a trial, during which a ‘prancer pricker’ (Tudor slang for horse thief) has his hands and ears cut off and nostrils slit open.
It is, however, all good silly slapstick fun. The amputated offender even gets in a quick quip about his mutilation and a potential career as a handyman.
The English Reformation is summed up in spectacularly simple terms, with Dr Dee (Simon Lloyd) comparing it to a football rivalry: ‘Henry VIII used to play on the Catholic team, but had an argument with the manager – the Pope. Now he manages the Protestant team.’
There is something delightfully wicked about the opposing on-stage soccer chants of ‘Protestants! C of E!’ and ‘I’m the Pope! I’m the Pope!’ at a Belfast show, and it is particularly life-affirming how funny the audience (adults and children alike) find it. The message comes through loud and clear – while we might be on different ‘teams’, everyone is the same at heart.
Lloyd’s portrayal of rotund ruler Henry VIII stands out as one of the best of the evening. Taking inspiration from Rik Mayall’s character in BBC comedy Bottom, the king comes across as a psychotically violent lothario – not too far from the truth.
He can be seen playing tennis with the newly relieved head of one of his many ex wives, and a rendition of 'Greensleeves' has him referring to ‘snot and bum pinching’. As is the way with this sort of thing, there is the ubiquitous rap, but clever wordplay (revolving around Anne Boleyn’s booty) ensures that it's funny rather than cringe-worthy.
The second half of the show is presented almost entirely in ‘Bogglevision’ – 3D to you and I. The effects are highly effective and fairly gruesome, with blood appearing to splatter across the audience as Mary Queen of Scots takes her turn at the chopping block.
A ‘manky medicine’ section breaks things up a little, featuring Dross feeding Drab the rotting brain of an executed criminal. A genuine Tudor treatment, this grisly cure was supposed to alleviate symptoms of insomnia.
A sing-song, ‘The Day King Jamie Gets His Crown On’, both marks the end of the Tudor era and rounds off a highly madcap yet informative performance. Full of top turns from a barebones cast, the show’s real success lies in its ability to treat children and adults with equal respect. It comes as no surprise that history can be horrible, but it is rarely this much fun.
Horrible Histories runs at the Grand Opera House until Sunday, May 27.