Review by Flossie Waite
Birmingham Stage Company
Reviewed at New Wimbledon Theatre
Touring nationally until 16th July
For ages 5+
‘Horrible Histories’ is a phenomenon – the plays, programmes, publications and merchandise all contribute to a hugely successful brand. I’m a Horrible Histories hipster: I was there from the early ’90s, using my pocket money to buy all the books that even now are still carefully collected on my shelf, and the fact that ‘Horrible Histories’ is listed as an “educational entertainment franchise” on Wikipedia makes me shudder. I should have seen the signs – even when I was young, I watched as Horrible Histories was joined by sister series Horrible Science, then Murderous Maths and so on; these spin-offs just eventually spun into what is now, clearly, an empire. Like all childhood passions, I was naturally nervous about how Horrible Histories might have been used and abused to serve the next generation. As I took my seat at New Wimbledon Theatre today, I wondered: is this a conglomerate that treasures and channels the spirit of one of the world’s greatest literary partnerships, that of author Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown? Or is it a money-making venture that sees no problem targeting children directly? Turns out, Horrible Histories: Incredible Invaders is a bit of both.
Mavis- just your average girl-next-door Celt – leads us through 1000 years of invasions as she battles the various brutes who turn up wanting a slice of Britain. The Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans all come along to have a pop, and Mavis (and her audience army) are quick to defend Blighty – though almost always on the wrong side of history.
Each Horrible Histories book constantly switches format – from cartoons to quizzes, and from imagined diary entries to make-your-own old-fashioned medicine recipes – always aiming to find the funniest and most engaging mode of communication. This varied, humorous style successfully translated into a CBBC sketch-show, and whilst there is a loose narrative to Incredible Invaders it too feels like a series of skits. Silly sound effects, dodgy wigs, and fancy-dress costumes abound in a script packed with pantomime violence, boob-jokes, and slightly dated or inaccessible cultural references (how many kids watch Grand Designs? or Morecambe and Wise?).
Throughout the first half, most of the invasions are fairly polite – more a case of people outstaying their welcome, than launching an aggressive assault on the motherland. But after the interval (during which everyone is told to wear 3D glasses as a disguise against the bloodthirsty Vikings) things get gruesome. The projections (formerly delightful but unassuming background imagery) become far more animated, with 3D horrors that leap off the screen and into the auditorium. There’s an unending catalogue of cruel and unusual punishments: men thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes, or used as archery target practice, or relieved of lungs which are spread across their back like wings. It’s truly horrible, and the delighted screams and squeals of the audience confirm it’s exactly what the young people watching are after. In fact, it ushers in a whole new level of interaction which sees the audience either collectively shrieking or enthusiastically participating: it’s quite moving to see rows of school kids enthusiastically chanting the King of Wessex’s name, as if he were a 7th-century Ranieri.
Watching Incredible Invaders – or rather, trying to peer through the tangle of waving arms volunteering to fight the Vikings – it made sense that Horrible Histories is now a brand and not just a book: the material is so good, and children really do love it. But before I get too gushy, it’s worth also saying that the show ends with a giant projected advert, played on a loop, for the Horrible Histories magazine, which the young audience are encouraged to find in any reputable newsagents. Swings and roundabouts.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.