With two thoroughly capable performers (both trained by some of the UK’s finest acting academies) giving it their all in this multi-role romp through the days of the Vikings to current political madness, Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain is energetic, edifying and occasionally a little close-to-the-bone. With enough flatulence-based comedy to make Chaucer proud, the young audience lapped up this very British, almost music-hall-style, two-hander in which Benedict Martin as Rex gives an occasionally Kenneth Williamesque take (for the pre-tween audience) on everything from Samuel Pepys to Boris Johnson. Pip Chamberlin as Roger matches gag-for-gag in the clowning and crooning, generally playing the straighter part to set up the laughs.
The show is funny but not hilarious. Nonetheless, there’s something for everyone to latch onto over the 70-minute, one-act performance. Barmy Britain‘s promotional material suggests it’s for 5+ but – whilst this show sits squarely in primary school entertainment – it does skew more towards Juniors rather than infants. Much of the humour or storytelling is delivered verbally, supported with visual cues (there are plenty of funny costumes to hold attention) but it’s not big on sight-gags per se. This theatrical performance best hooks its audience when it can nod to a degree of familiarity with an ‘established’ fact and then subvert it. Indeed, the Horrible Histories franchise is precisely about finding a refreshing interpretation in acknowledging and marvelling in absurdity as much as (tamely) gruesome details. Although you are almost certainly likely to learn something you didn’t know (which is satisfying), this play isn’t the place to perfect chronology or historiography. Barmy Britain is about enjoying satire and getting a fresh take on references you recognise at least a little: a very British theatrical experience for young people born very much out the traditions of British parody. Think of it as a little bit panto meets Beyond the Fringe-lite for those who haven’t yet sat their 11+.
With the Horrible Histories franchise also making respectable cinematic inroads this summer by unleashing the biggest faces of contemporary UK comedy (plus Sir Derek Jacobi in a hilarious in-joke role) to deliciously chew the scenery in Rotten Romans, kids who love (educationally-justifiable) gross-out humour, and parents who want something with a bit more public-service tone than the usual Hollywood fare, have some fun options to pursue in both cinema and theatre this year. However, Barmy Britain (perhaps because it is theatre) does more than explore history with its tongue planted firmly in cheek. Rightly, it can’t be credible in mocking the bonkers attitudes and actions of monarchs and mobs for the last two millennia without acknowledging where we are today. Although hardly central to the show, the nettle is grasped and this seems bitingly apt and honest. However, in that most British of ways, it seems to wrap-up with a ‘mustn’t grumble’ contextualisation about how British history has always been led by fools, miscreants and incompetents and so we should keep calm and carry on. Somehow the ‘there-there’ finale feels more like, having brought up the apocalypse, we really must put the kettle on now for what else can you do? Such a conclusion isn’t entirely uplifting. The children, however, will sing along and smile and, just like those Rotten Romans, we live to fight another day.
Review by Mary Beer
Barmy Britain – Part Four! was the most successful Horrible Histories show so far and enjoyed a sell-out 2018 summer season.
Be reduced to rubble by the ruthless Romans! Would you be shaken or stirred by Richard III? Will Queen Elizabeth I endure her terrible teeth? Would you be hanged by King James I for being a witch? Mount a mutiny against King Henry VIII! See Mary Tudor knock the spots off Mary Queen of Scots! Peep into the world of Samuel Pepys and help Georgian detectives find the headless man! Take a trip into the night with the night soil men and discover how to survive the first ever train ride!
Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain – Part 4
Apollo Theatre, London
31 Shaftesbury Avenue London W1D 7ES