Review: Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain – Part Four (Apollo Theatre)

A brand new live version of Terry Deary’s fun history franchise returns to the West End over the summer

Anthony Spargo and Neal Foster in Barmy Britain
Anthony Spargo and Neal Foster in Barmy Britain
© Mark Douet

'Britain has never been more barmy!' so says Neal Foster in the latest instalment of Horrible Histories Live Onstage. What with Brexit and Boris Johnson, there's obviously truth in that statement, but Foster, of the Birmingham Stage Company, and Anthony Spargo nevertheless spend the next 70 minutes trying to demonstrate just how barmy things got in the past.

Though the Horrible Histories format is a little staid – this is the fourth stage production and all of them follow the same set up – this brand new offering actually feels as tight, funny, silly and informative as the best of them. Essentially it's a two-man romp through some of Britain's mad moments, touching on the story of Saint Alban – who was this country's first ever Christian martyr – through to the Vikings, Richard III, Henry VIII, James I, Pepys, the Victorians and more besides.

It's Foster's throwaway, dirty-joked script which works best. He's adapted Terry Deary's fun history books for young children into a raucous, fast-paced experience, with lots of fart gags. But the timing is also key and Foster and Spargo's performances are as personable and hilarious as they come. Each motors through the events, using classic comedy sound effects (passing wind does come up a lot), and throwing on an astounding array of costumes with ease.

Whether or not Horrible Histories actually teaches the audience anything is anyone's guess. The show is quick-fire, and a young 'un might be left in the dark if they didn't know a little of what the two goons on stage are blathering on about. But the slapstick will most definitely entertain and if this show provides even the beginnings of a talking point, or familiarises the little ones with historical figures, then it's doing something good in my book.

And Foster has chosen some pretty great moments of history to focus on, which landed well with the young audience the afternoon I saw it. An argument between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Mary about which Mary is the better Mary is a lot of chuckles, while James I's track record as a witch burner provoked a few gasps from the audience. In the latter half there's also a cute moment of audience interaction, which doesn't outstay its welcome.

It's a lot of fun, basically; snappy, silly and upbeat and a perfect chance to try to entertain the clan whilst school's out.