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Birmingham Stage Companies Terrible Thames River Tour

It has been my great privilege to have been invited, along with my primary school-aged co-critics who are now aged 10, to review a Horrible Histories stage show each year since 2019 (save when the pandemic set the West End dark). Yet this Easter was the first time we’ve been treated to an HH brand extension in the form of the Terrible Thames River Cruise. My kids and I are already hardcore fans of Terry Deary and Neal Foster’s work but I’ve occasionally managed to find the tiniest of gripes with the historiographic angles of a few stage versions – loving them nonetheless. But not here: quite simply, Horrible Histories Live Onboard! Terrible Thames is such brilliantly good fun and so well-executed and designed I hardly have any notes other than some practical advice to families to make the most of the day out.

Terrible Thames - credit Danny Kaan.
Terrible Thames – credit Danny Kaan.

With five cruises per day setting off from St Katherine’s Quay (a pleasant jaunt down to the river from Tower Hill Underground station – which features a lovely little playground in the shadow of the Tower of London), you can build an entire day around the cruise or bolt it on to a more thorough exploration of some of London’s great sights. At 45-minutes long, the show is paced perfectly to hold the attention of youngsters whilst providing fascinating insights into landmarks along the Thames without feeling like it’s over-stuffed with too much history to retain but is also plenty packed for a more astute student. I promise you’ll learn something you didn’t know whether you’re in Year 3 or have a PhD in History. This activity is ideal to rediscover London if you’re a local on a staycation or just fancy a weekend about town or if you’re a visitor looking to get a taste of the city’s vast and vivid history whilst experiencing much of its beauty and intrigue without being overwhelmed by traffic or crowds. If you are a Londoner, this is also a great way to give visitors an entrée to the capital but, likewise, you don’t need an excuse because it’s just plain old fun for everyone.

With so many sailings, the cast naturally needs to rotate but we were treated to writer, director and actor Neal Foster starring with James Elliott (who is an energetic young talent who did a star turn in the David Walliams adaptation of Billionaire Boy in the West End and on tour). There’s a simple plot device whereby the young man is a student (a cheeky and very bright one – in line with the subversive erudition of all of Deary’s work) who’s won the trip as a prize guided by his school teacher. Tables are turned whereby the pupil shows he knows rather more than his teacher in places but the device is funny and not strained. Most importantly, the theatrical business is enlivening but secondary to the tour such that no lilies are unnecessarily gilded.

My children particularly enjoyed the requisite potty humour (for which the Birmingham Stage Company are surely global leaders!) and the sing-alongs – along with the topical but light-touch political satire. I found myself taking more notes of historical facts that were new to my learning than observations of production criticism — in other words, I was totally engrossed.

Terrible Thames is a proper family event with enjoyment for all its audience, regardless of age and I highly recommend it to everyone. In terms of maximising your day out, do remember you will likely be on an open deck on the river so, no matter how sunny it feels inland, make sure to bring layers and prepare for changes in the weather – it may get chilly on the water but don’t forget about sunhats. Snacks are allowed on board and the seating is plenty comfortable so you may want to think about bringing a little picnic as – per a joke in the show – an ice cream cone really is £5 from the nearby kiosks. You can start queueing on the quay about 30 minutes before boarding, but there’s plenty of seating so, unless you’re especially particular about seating (the cast move about and the focus is the sights of the river rather than their actions), I wouldn’t exhaust your little ones with queuing when you could take your time relaxing on a bench on the embankment. In the event of inclement weather, there is a spacious inside deck too. There are plenty of loos on board too so don’t panic. Whilst the creatives have decorated it with a few classic HH motifs, the vessel is thoroughly modern. Smart, witty and enthralling, Terrible Thames is totally terrific family entertainment on the move.

5 Star Rating

Review by Mary Beer

Horrible Histories proudly presents its wicked river tour of the Terrible Thames. Climb aboard and prepare to hear the horrible history of the most famous river in the world!

Tremble in terror at the Tower! Sizzle at the Savoy! Give Cleopatra the needle! Be washed away at Westminster! Lose yourself in Lambeth! Get gobsmacked by the Globe! Hold onto your head at London Bridge and escape from Execution Dock!

Dive in with Horrible Histories into the stories of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Julius Caesar, Queen Boudicca, Jack the Ripper and Captain Kidd, in this history of the Thames with the nasty bits left in…


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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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2 thoughts on “Birmingham Stage Companies Terrible Thames River Tour”

  1. This was just brilliant . I took my granddaughter who has special needs and also uses a wheelchair but can transfer to a seat easily . The staff made us very welcome and the wheelchair was no issue stored at the back of the seating area . My granddaughter joined in the singing and clapping and it was a pleasure to see her smiling face and to see her enjoying herself so much . As much as it’s a fun based event it also is very informative pointing out the landmarks as we sailed past them . We had the map to follow which was great to refer to and point out what the actors were talking about . Brilliant trip so glad I booked it

    1. So delighted to hear this! Some theatre companies are better than others when it comes to meeting all the needs of audience members so it’s really encouraging when a producer and venue have given proper thought to the details and get it right!!! Yet another reason to love this show!

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