Stretching from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the killing fields of Passendale, The Birmingham Stage Company’s adaptation of Terry Deary’s Frightful First World War is history with the nasty bits left in. Blasting historiography with its trademark tongue in cheek humour, Horrible Histories Live is as educational as it is irreverent, presenting a muted version of the grim reality of ‘the war to end all wars’ in a delicious assault on the mind and on the senses. The stage may be clouded in more smoke than the frontline but it maintains a succinctly clear message.
Slapstick and comic, the play is wholly designed for children. It sings like a pantomime, is acted like a comic book and cracks jokes about turnips which Blackadder’s Baldric would have left in the trenches. It is an accessible version of World War One history, personifying the countries and issues of the period through humorous stereotyping and sketches. The satire of watching Ciaran McConville’s bullish personification of Germany challenge the Allied Powers to fight him in the wrestling ring is a satisfying sight; it forms an educational simplification for a younger audience of the factors which led Europe to war.
At the end of the first act, the audience is invited to slip on a pair of 3D glasses and experience the second half in ‘Bogglevision’. Through the magic of Bogglevision, dark German tanks roll from the backdrop screen into the audience, firing huge graphic bullets into the stalls and inspiring screams of frightened glee from the crowd. This is often unsuccessful. The 3D sinking of the Lusitania, the passenger liner sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915, feels in bad taste, forsaking the emotional reality of the innocent lives lost for the cheap thrill of flashing a severed head to the audience.
Despite this, Horrible Histories Live achieves surprisingly levels of sensitivity, dropping the puns and bad jokes which characterise the series in honour of the men who gave their lives and youth in the heat of battle. Like the visual effects, the characters find a new dimension of realism, singing sad dirges to the ironic tune of Auld Lang Syne and recounting monologues reminiscent of war poetry. The script changes, using fact to genuinely shock, not to childishly revolt, and to introduce the children in the audience to the cruel reality of war.
Horrible Histories Live feels like a reworking of Blackadder Goes Forth for children: it teaches some very important lessons and, like the fallen heroes of its First World War, often goes over the top.
- Scott Purvis