Horrible Histories is a quirky British television series that uses a comic-skit format to entertain and educate a young audience about moments of history that are usually gruesome, macabre or scatological.
The excited chatter of the young audience waiting for the live stage version to begin at the Dunstan Playhouse indicated they were familiar with the format and content of the TV show, which is based on the very successful books by Terry Deary and Andrew Martin. Audience members sporting Tutankhamen headgear showed they were prepared to immerse themselves in the spirit of the production.
Cleverly, the stage show is different from the television production as it deals only with the life of the Egyptians and there is a clear narrative. The scene is set by a colourful Egyptian projection, in the style of Andrew Martin’s book illustrations, with a roving eye and blocks of pyramid stone topped with ancient artefacts such as Tutankhamen’s mask.
The image changes to establish a museum, and an archaeologist and his sidekick explore a secretive space, searching for a statuette that is meant to release the spirit of Ramesses II. Just as they get hold of it, a young girl, Mazy, somewhat bored with the organised history tour, discovers the duo with the ancient object in their grasp. Once Ramesses II is released, the adventure begins, with the trio discovering the nature of pharaohs as gods, the building of the pyramids, the story of Osiris and Isis, the process of mummification, the significance of The Book of the Dead and the Egyptian belief about the journey to the after-life (reserved only for the rich).
Puns and jokes abound, especially when Isis searches the Nile for her husband’s body parts, which are thrown on stage as she refers to his organs and appendages. Just before interval, the process of mummification is vividly explained as the characters dissect a dummy; the skull is split, the brain removed and organs taken from the tummy. It’s a biology lesson as well as a history one. As well as the jokes, there are songs and dances, including a very entertaining “Mummy Wrap” which is, not surprisingly, performed as a rap.
The performers know how to work their audience and there are the usual interactions with the children, enthusiastic calling out and the singing of choruses. The youngsters thoroughly enjoy themselves.
In the second half, we are asked to wear boggle goggles and the show changes, with the acting taking place largely in front of a superb 3D animated film; when the characters run through a maze in a tomb or they throw a “rock” towards the audience, screams of delight emanate from young and old as they evade what appears to be an object heading straight for them. A cobra and mummy appear close enough to touch.
Then there are effective visual moments live on stage, with actors as Anubis and Osiris deciding whether a character has led a good life and deserves to be allowed to continue with their spiritual journey. After all the 3D fun, a live mummy appears in the audience, initially scaring people, but soon after cracking jokes and having them in fits of laughter.
The talented cast is slick, comic, energetic and thoroughly entertaining. Each performer plays numerous characters and smoothly changes accents; they use slapstick, sing well and engage the audience throughout.
History has its horrible moments, but in their books, Deary and Martin have made it fun and educational and they have a loyal following of readers. Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians is a brilliant introduction for audiences of all ages to the power of theatre and the lessons we can learn from studying history.
Horrible Histories, presented by Andrew Kay and Associates, by arrangement with the Birmingham Stage Company, is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until April 15.