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.