Horrible Histories: Terrible Tudors & Awful Egyptians – King’s Theatre

Based on the books by Terry Deary

Writers: Terry Deary & Neal Foster

Director: Neal Foster

For 25 years the books of Horrible Histories have been delighting, disgusting and in some cases frightening the young (and old) of the nation. A tremendously valuable tool, they captured an imaginative way to make history and culture accessible for people who found little interest. Written by original author Terry Deary with Neal Foster, Horrible Histories the Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are two shows which may share a cast, but each is crammed with enough differences to merit its own show.

Time flows in a peculiar way once we venture into the past, in two forty-five-minute acts we somehow go from the coronation of cruel hunchback Richard III right up to the death of Elizabeth I. We witness the building of the Pyramids and cover an extensive period of British and world history quicker (and better) than most curriculums. Yet, it doesn’t feel long enough. We want, neigh we beg more. We want more squelching moments of disgust, period cures to common ailments, more mummy (w)rapping and assuredly more interaction between the three performers.

Of the two, the vicious dramatics of Terrible Tudors may have more blood, gore and a braver audience, but it is those Awful Egyptians who have the more rounded piece. The overall narrative has a more fluid structure, with the smoother transitions between scenes. We are not solely witnessing the stories but instead trapped inside a Museum of Ancient Egyptian antiquities where the imposing Rameses the Great has been awakened.

A sumptuous blend of the ridiculous with the technological exists on stage. Some of the props are directly out of the drama school closet, the dolls of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I are adorable, yet still creepy, speaking of which as is the puppet of Henry VIII only son, Edward. They’re used with love, their less grand manner heightening the gags. Buckle up though, this second act is about to pull out the bells and whistles…

A selling point for both Horrible Histories is its Boggle vision – 3D projections which serve as the backdrop for the second half. In cinema, this is a gimmick used once every thirty years. The fifties tried it, the eighties re-invented it and the later 2000s vastly improved upon it. The design work of Jackie Trousdale is tremendous. The cold stones of the Tower of London, rich flames and crimson squelches of blood plastering the screen setting the tone sublimely. Likewise, the vivid brightness of Ancient Egypt is only as appealing as the atmospheric haunts of the afterlife…

Just when you thought we couldn’t be livelier – these are in fact musicals. Yep, you read that right. Nothing works better for memorising history than mind-numbing rhymes which are far better than they have any right to be. Matthew Scott’s music composition captures Horrible Histories television show tunes many will be familiar with, Izaak Cainer and Lisa Allen belting out accomplished vocals.

In keeping with any successful children’s show, they cross the threshold into adult territory. Doing so not only in humour but through serious tone changing, shifting from the farcically fun into the dramatic but gruesome features of history. The dedication undertook by cast member Lisa Allen in her closing moments as Elizabeth I are stirring, echoing back to the sinister turn earlier in the production as the famous Green Sleeves degrades into the fate of Anne Boleyn.

Simon Nook, half caricature, half comedian and half King of England brings his absolute A-game to both productions, firstly as a larger than life Henry the VIII but then as an even more menacingly hilarious Ramesses the Great. He knows just when to kickstart the audience, which button needs pushing and how to dial up the volume from the party poopers in the crowd. His voices encourage fits of pure giggles in a way the original books first accomplished. His performance to ‘make Egypt great again’ may slip over a few heads but has knifepoint commentary laced throughout.

Nook, Allen and Cainer capture the essence of what Deary brought to the publishing world decades ago. To not only educate but to entertain, gross-out and ignite a passion for history. Both Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are hilarious, engaging and beneficial for any inspiring history buff while reigniting a passion for us adults.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/horrible-histories-terrible-tudors-and-awful-egyptians-kings-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit – Mark Douet

And If I Were Me – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Video rights: Act2

Created by Catherine Dreyfus

How do you visualise an emotion? Utilising the medium of movement, French choreographer Catherine Dreyfus’ production of And If I Were Me puts forward this question. 

Initially concealed within a box, a plethora of wonders are revealed to the audience. Arnaud Poumarat‘s set is a cube featuring sliding panels that gradually reveal a projection screen, among other surprises. The spectacular design allows the dancers to convey vivid movements and reality-defying tricks, as only sections of thier bodies are exposed – much to the delight of the audience. The resulting show is a child-like delight that communicates the true joy of creative expression.

Significantly physical, the performance is more of a movement piece than a dance production. As the audience are taken on an evolutionary journey, the performers react to one another with a spontaneous-seeming ease that is often funny, especially when they farcically shuffle around as post-cellular life forms. 

Dreyfus’ choreography channels various emotions, perhaps to relay to children the power of dance to express feelings. The concepts of confusion, aggression and stress are communicated through rapidly shifting leaps, balanced out by the playfulness towards the climax of the show that embodies joy. The pacing slows slightly when two performers are attempting to ‘awaken’ Dreyfus from her sleepy state, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the overall rhythm.

The show’s only flaw is its sound design, which relies too heavily on gags. During the show’s more conceptual moments, such as when we hear the squelching of early-life organisms in primordial mud, its effective. But these sound effects are overused, and they feel like a crude inclusion once the toilet humour kicks in.

Art2 Company brings a passionate show to kick off Edinburgh’s International Children’s Festival. Overall, And If I Were Me is a charismatically constructed piece of movement, and an engaging show for children who may be grappling with their own identities and emotions.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/and-if-i-were-me-the-studio-festival-theatre

Emil & The Detectives – Traverse Theatre

Image contribution: Andy Rasheed

by Erich Kästner, adapted for the stage by Nicki Bloom

Who’s in the mood for an adventure? Adapted by Nicki Bloom from Erich Kästner’s 1929 novella, this production of Emil & The Detectives receives the full treatment from Slingsby Productions, displaying their signature style of intimate storytelling with cinematic undertones.

Every child dreams of adventure, and for us country kids, the greatest experience was a jaunt to the big city. For Emil, a trip to the capital offers excitement, intriguing characters, but also exposure to the harshness of greed. When a slick thief, armed with a silver tongue and bowler hat, steals her money, Emil will stop at nothing to reclaim what’s rightfully hers.

This is children’s theatre at its most sublime, with a diverse range of narrative methods that keep the audience engaged and entertained throughout. Emil & The Detectives has no issue keeping its audience transfixed on the wonders onstage – it uses lighting, audience interaction, soundscapes and illustrations to keep the show both magical and pacy. Playing with the dualities of light and dark, miniature and grand, Wendy Todd’s design work is reminiscent of the cinematic tones of Wes Anderson. 

Don’t be fooled: this hasn’t been made exclusively for the young ones. Never resorting to cheap, hidden gags for mums and dads, its ingenuity and solid performances will appeal to the imagination of any spectator. Elizabeth Hay is masterful: while she makes an adorable Emil, capturing childlike innocence, she also conveys a striking, guttural determination.

An entire company of performers, however, would struggle to convey a cast of characters as well as Tim Overton, who plays the production’s statue, narrator, Emil’s mother and the thief. His energy is astounding, and the dedication to each character – ensuring there are enough variations in his performances to separate them – is commendable.

The show’s use of illustration is also effective. Some are the works of visiting children; many are animations by the talented Luku Kukuku. These, in tandem with Andy Ellis’ graphics, make Emil & The Detectives a piece of visual art in its own right. A remarkable show that isn’t just for children, Emil & The Detectives is for anyone who enjoys a good old-fashioned story, told with warmth, heart and sheer inventive skill. 

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/emil-the-detectives-traverse-theatre-edinburgh

Production Information: https://www.slingsby.net.au/production/emil-and-the-detectives/