Have you ever a heard a room containing hundreds of children fall completely pin-drop silent? And if so, did that silence result from the listing of statistical, historical facts? It’s a rare thing to move from grotesque comedy to heart-breaking tragedy, or indeed to find tragedy nestled in an Apprentice parody within a family theatre show. But Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain is a rare thing, a biting satire that barks viscously with sketch comedy and goofy impressions.
Barmy Britain is co-written by the author of the original Horrible Histories series Terry Dreary, creating a work that initially has the texture of the books – all broad strokes and cartoon bloodlust, very different to Pythonesque upper-lip of the CBBC TV show. It’s a risky move given the commercial pull of the television brand, but one that pays off handsomely. It allows director Neal Foster – with actors Benedict Martin and Lauryn Redding - to up the pace of the action, making the show full of movement, with thundering transitions and lightning-fast on-stage costumes changes. It’s a style reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company performing the complete works of the Bard, showing a potted history of Britain from the Roman invasion to the present day.
Restoring the tone of Dreary’s books also allows a fantastic grotesquery that quickly reveals the darker undercurrent that characterises the play’s final third. The exploration of Roman cooking made me genuinely squeamish, especially with its cartoony but visceral Tarantino-esque sound effects of blood, guts, and brains being minced and squished. From here we are dragged by the scruff of the neck, kicking, screaming, and singing along through the barbarity of British history. It’s hilarious stuff, riotously funny and reflecting Dreary’s libertarianism in its irreverence to all vestiges of authority and status.
Things darken when we get to Guy Fawkes, whose cartoon beard and under-arm barrel of gunpowder hint little at the subtlety his Who Wants To Be a Millionaire parody is about to deliver. The multiple choice – a quiz structure straight from the pages of the books – is defeated by Fawkes’s declaration that he will choose his own means of death. When the audience hears what it is a heavy lump slips into the throat of our collective laughter and continues to rise through the chilling butchery of the Crimean War and a new section for the show’s Scottish run about child-murderers Burke and Hare.
By the time we get to the Apprentice parody, that sees WWI General Douglas Haig answering to Alan Sugar about his botched war plans, the house is silent. It’s still comedy - with Martin and Redding losing just the smallest emotionally hesitant beat - and lets the audience do all of the emotional work, trusting the young crowd with a huge amount of emotional sophistication and theatrical empathy. The closing song brings things right up to date, with each character returning to articulate their disbelief at our own barbarity, our own barminess, our own brutality. Everything from processed meat to Chinese slavery is addressed in a satirical frenzy that culminates in a bitter, sarcastic salute of the Union Flag.
In this summer of red, white and blue nationalism, children’s theatre is blowing a bold, aggressive raspberry at our own complacency. Be careful taking under 7s – the Burke and Hare sketch certainly needs parental guidance – but this state-of-the-nation theatre will be a revelation to all ages, treating our superiors like children, children like adults, and the whole of Barmy Britiain with unrivalled brilliance.