BLOOD, FILTH, MURDER AND CHILDISH GLEE
A fearful roar, as of surf on rocks, heralds the arrival and settling of school parties: three hundred 6-11 year olds surging and bouncing while ushers look on with maternal pleasure or wincing horror, depending on gender. But they’re game for theatre, even if it risks being a bit educational: it is rare for the mere rising of the safety-curtain to meet deafening cheers. This softened me up, and I needed it: Terry Deary’s “Horrible Histories” books are hugely popular but always put me off. I admit that children love gory fights, beheadings, filth, bums, laughing at authority figures and any kind of noisy cartoonish disgracefulness. I did, once. But why, I grumped, encourage it? So I avoided the books. And the shows, written by Deary with Neal Foster (who also directs).
But when something’s big and beloved, it behoves the solemn critic to turn up, dodge the flying ice-creams and risk the eardrums. And possibly to join in the audience chorus of the Black Death Song, swellings and smelliness culminating in “Time to ring your funeral bell / Then along comes Mr Death, and takes you off to hell”). Not to mention a startling Burke and Hare number to the tune of Postman Pat.
For this is a lively hour, with Lauryn Redding and Anthony Spargo hurtling between characters from Richard the Lionheart to Queen Victoria with a series of (rather classy) quick-change costumes and a magic folding prop-box as castle, prison or tumbril. There is the inevitable delight in beheading, bum-wiping (Henry VIII”s Groom of the Stool), and any war which turned out to be pointless: some good jokes about William Wallace and the Bruce. There is an attempt at curing an audience member of the Plague by rubbing a chicken’s bum on her neck and “purifying the air” with loud noises.
That detail of superstitious plague-cures was why in the end, I gave in and admitted that as school or holiday trips go, it’s not bad. For Deary may jump on disgusting facts and embarrassing errors of judgment like Richard I’s crusades, but they are real facts and sometimes enlightening: these children now know the scale of plague deaths, the progress of Boudicca, why the Stone of Scone matters, how Tudor executioners got paid, and that the heroic legend of Dick Turpin and Black Bess is hogwash. They know that history is a big, brash riveting story. It’s not just Second Period After Break on Wednesdays, as it was for my bored generation; or “How would you feel if you were a Roman Soldier’s wife?” as it sometimes is now. It’s a story.
Box office: 0844 412 4662 to 5 Jan