Chris Fautley revels in a rambunctious show about the Tudors.
Horrible Histories, the Terrible Tudors. Tours in tandem with The Vile Victorians until April. www.birminghamstage.net
Queens throwing up, terrible jokes, witches on ducking stools, slit nostrils and chopped-off ears - great news for Horrible Histories fans, the Terrible Tudors are live on stage in Birmingham Stage Company's presentation of Terry Deary's popular book. And what a feel-good, uplifting and electrifying show it is. I say that since it surely takes something extraordinarily special for a cast of four to engage with and captivate a theatre full of 7 to 11-year-olds for nigh on two hours. Not only that, it's history, for goodness sake. Ah yes, but Terry Deary's unique brand.
The auditorium is buzzing with anticipation in Bromley's Churchill Theatre as our host, Dr Dee, and dim-witted sidekicks Drab and Dross, make their entrance. The story starts with the gruesome murder of the princes in the tower. Enter school-marmly Ms Tree, whose role in life is to ensure we are presented only with the facts and to make history as boring as possible. We are not to be frightened with tales of blood and murder. We don't want to hear them. (Oh yes we do!) All the usual Tudor suspects (and a few more), mighty and menial, are here: Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake, beggars, murderers and witches - the cast assumes the roles of them all, acting out their stories. The Tudors, Drab tells us, were cruel (just what we wanted to hear): cue a thorough examination of Tudor punishments.
Audience interaction is writ large: cheering, booing, and hissing the order of the day. Some moments are pure pantomime, not least when Henry is wooing Anne Boleyn with the most toe-curling poetry ever. As for the jokes: "Why was Henry VII buried in Westminster Abbey?"
"Because he was dead."
There is plenty for the adults too, such as when Ms Tree informs Dr Dee that OFSTAPO (the Office for Standards in Political Orientation) has complained that they do not like disrespectful things being said about Tudor monarchs. "I don't think you realise how horrible history is. That's what makes it so exciting," grumbles Dr Dee. We all cheer. The first half concludes as we sing for all we are worth of the fate of Henry VIII's wives. And as the curtain descends, I can't help feeling slightly relieved: the auditorium seems fit to combust spontaneously in an explosion of joy and excitement.
The pace slackens slightly in part two (from supersonic to marginally below); I blame the special effects. During the interval, we are issued with Bogglevision glasses. If 3D specs at the cinema have disappointed, then Bogglevision is a revelation. That the back-projected scenery gains a depth of its own is remarkable enough; but it is with special effects that Bogglevision really excels.
Believe me - during the Spanish Armada scenes, virtual cannon balls fly into the auditorium, children were leaping out of their seats trying to catch them. And Bromley was engulfed by a sea of screams when a skull launched itself at us. The show, however, is not an exact replication of the book, it's better.
Dance, music, poetry, special effects and an outstanding, hard-working cast add an extra magical spark. Fans will not be disappointed; non-fans cannot fail to be converted; doubters should look at the 50-page teachers' pack that all school parties receive. But don't just take my word for it.
Somewhere among the joyous hordes are 52, mostly Year 4 children from Rangefield Primary School, Lewisham, studying QCA units: "Why did Henry VIII marry so many times" and "Rich and poor life in Tudor times".
"The best show ever," says Jessica, aged nine. "Spectacular," adds Kyla, aged eight. "Superb," remarks Darnell, and "inspirational," says Chelsey, both of whom are also eight.
Group leader, Petrina Kempton says: "It was brilliant. Just enough information linked with plenty of excitement to keep all of us enthralled, adults and pupils alike. As for the children, not one of them was disappointed." They had not, she says, read the book. "But I was told in no uncertain terms we definitely need to."
So, did it fire up enthusiasm? "Yes! They are so much more interested now.
We need more of these types of show."
Mortgage the school if you have to. Ransom the governors, even. No child, or adult, should be denied the chance to see this: live theatre - and history - at its rip-roaring best.