As a format, Horrible Histories has established an impressive history of its own over the nearly 30 years since the first book by Terry Deary was published. Mining different civilisations and epochs for the weird, gross and ridiculous, the HH approach has – and continues – to delight and intrigue children. This summer’s incarnation, The Terrible Tudors is true to the brand’s tradition and provides plenty of enjoyment but is perhaps not the very strongest of the Horrible Histories Live that my kids and I have had the pleasure of seeing.
Unlike the various Barmy Britain stage shows which cherry-pick the quirkiest and most theatrical events from the last two millennia, the Tudor period offers only 118 years from which to grab its mad, bad and icky stories. Perhaps it’s because so much in the Tudor period truly was terrible that it’s harder to locate light-hearted japes for entertainment value. The relentless brutality of the two centuries prior to the early Enlightenment is, by its very nature, filled with executions and torture. As such, to keep the show jolly, the performers are called upon to embark on classic panto antics. Tried and true, these elicit plenty of glee from an auditorium full of kids, but they lack the same theatrical roughage that made a trip to a Horrible Histories Live show equally entertaining for parents. I found myself content but indulging the children a little this time whereas previously I was swept away by a secondary level of pleasure and edification.
The Terrible Tudors is a two-hander with rotating casting amongst four stalwart actors. Our production featured Ben Martin (Dr Dee) and Emma Swan (Drabb) who displayed excellent chemistry with some delightful improv elements that show off their theatrical chops. As with the various David Walliams stage adaptations (from which Martin is a familiar face), the Birmingham Stage Company knows how to chew the scenery and woo a crowd and this show is no exception.
The script, however, felt a little baggy and needed more than its fair share of non-historically-specific devices to keep it moving. Starting before the Tudors with a Richard III vignette, it seemed as if the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted to debunk or double-down on the mythology and misconceptions surrounding the last Plantagenet king. This same ambivalence seemed to haunt the show. At first, it seemed as if we were going on a ride that would dispel some key pop culture distortions – with puppetry and interruptions from the other cast member. But by the next skit – and into the Tudor era – the story seemed to have given up the will to challenge, playfully, which is a hallmark of the Horrible Histories franchise. Must we so heartily rely on fat jokes for Henry VIII comedy? Are we praising or condemning Elizabeth I, with the cast speaking a quick aside about the British monarchy’s enrichment by slavery and some Shakespeare banter? Could we really not think of anything more interesting and substantive as a song-and-dance number foreshadowing the Jacobean era than ‘The day Jamie got his crown’?
The telling of history can be a thorny business and has become more so in the last three decades since Horrible Histories arrived on the scene. Although The Terrible Tudors was one of the first books in the series, it seems attitudes towards monarchy and the ‘great men of history’ as central to our understanding of past and present have changed. It makes the writing of scripts that will profit and please, in equal measure, all members of the family a trickier business. Nonetheless, I am glad that Neal Foster (Co-Writer and Director) and his team persist in the endeavour. Although (unlike previous Horrible Histories Live experiences) I didn’t learn anything new, I noticed that every child in the house roared with laughter during the performance. For just over an hour and with tickets less than £30, The Terrible Tudors affords a gratifying and good-value centrepiece to a family day out.
Review by Mary Beer
We all want to meet people from history. The trouble is everyone is dead!
So it’s time to prepare yourselves for Terrible Tudors live on stage!
From the horrible Henries to the end of evil Elizabeth, hear the legends (and the lies!) about the torturing Tudors. Find out the fate of Henry’s headless wives and his punch-up with the Pope. Meet Bloody Mary and see Ed fall dead in his bed. Survive the Spanish Armada as they launch their attack!
It’s history with the nasty bits left in!
Horrible Histories – Terrible Tudors
Garrick Theatre, London