Saturday, 23 February 2013

Horrible Histories, Terrible Tudors - review

Written by: Andrew Crane (AndrewRCrane)

Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Imagine a history lesson on the Tudors, aimed at pre-teens, delivered by a quartet who can best be described as a mash up of Monty Python and Blackadder. You’ve probably just imagined the best history lesson imaginable, and that’s exactly what this is; an energetic, panto-esque, headfirst dive into the more unsavoury parts of the Tudor reign. However be warned, this is not for the squeamish…

Our ‘Teachers’ for the evening take the form of a travelling trio: Dr Dee (Christopher Gunter), Drab (Ashley Bowden), and Dross (Tessa Vale). Their passion for exploring the historically nauseating is given a rather persistent obstacle by the very prim and proper Miss Tree (Amanda Wright), whose conservative views on what parts of history children should be taught are just asking to be ignored. This dynamic in the ensemble proves successful in rousing the rebellious nature of the audience’s younger members, making them all the more hungry for the historical morsels headed their way. What an ingenious ploy.

Beginning at Henry VII winning the throne in battle against King Richard, our troupe utilise all sorts of household items from pots and pans to brooms to arm themselves in the epic battle, great fun, but nothing too outrageous yet. The show really gets going with the depictions of the Tudor penal system; nostrils are slit, ears are burned and limbs are hacked off; and it’s glorious, cast and audience alike delight in the carnage. Watch out in particular for one very unlucky horse thief, his plight at the hands of the Tudor court is fantastic.

For the most infamous of all Tudors, Henry VIII of course, Christopher Gunter gives us a gruff, deplorable cockney and is simply hysterical. From his creation of the Church of England, to his musical wooings (Turns out One Direction draw their influences from a much further back than anyone expected), Gunter manages a comic energy that is unexpected in a show aimed at children.

For the second act the audience is each treated to a pair of 3D glasses, and the backdrop of the stage is transformed into a spectacle of depth and questionable graphics. Gimmicky? Absolutely, but judging by the ecstatic shrieks emitted from the target audience, a stroke of genius. Also worth a mention is the surprisingly touching and skilful use of puppetry in the depiction of the sickly King Edward VI, a moment of subtle beauty in the hectic play that still managed to keep the dark humour.

If I was to give one criticism, it’s that the show could have gone even further with the ‘horrible’ bits, it feels at times as if it’s being played safe, underestimating just how much children revel in the gruesome and vile (and adults for that matter). Nonetheless the Tudor reign is well and truly brought to life, even those who failed at history will find something to enjoy here, and perhaps even something to learn.

This production has now closed.

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