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Great Britain or Barmy Britain? You Decide…

14 May 2012

For those lucky enough to attend Birmingham Stage Company’s ‘Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain’, a portrayal of Rule Britannia throughout the years that’s aimed squarely at the young ones, this is far from kids’ stuff. Instead, it’s a rip-roaring romp full of putrefied guts and decapitated heads that produces enough ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ to keep the whole family enthralled.

As creator of one of the most successful children’s theatre outfits in the industry, Neal Foster joins the play for its 12-week run at the Garrick Theatre from the start of June, having co-wrote, produced and directed the production. It’s a historical hurry through the Roman period, a virtuous look at the Vikings, and stage-perfected snapshots follow for the Tudors and Stuarts, Georgians and Victorians. Bringing in the First World War as well, Neal knows a thing or two about how to entertain what can be a tricky audience.
 
“I think there’s this belief that if you give children anything to watch, they’re pretty easy to cater for,” he says, as he prepares to star alongside long-time collaborator Alison Fitzjohn. “But actually, they’re the toughest critics you’ll find – completely unforgiving!
 
“If an adult audience isn’t enjoying it, they go to sleep. If kids don’t enjoy it, they start talking loudly, or go to the loo, or eat sweets, or get their mobile phones out. Our aim is to have them quiet at the right moments, and having fun when we’re being silly.
 
“So they love the scenes with the Tudors and people having their heads chopped off. The love all the gory Roman parts and their ghastly food habits.”
 
Ghastly food habits? Sounds delightful. We may need a little more elaboration… or warning, as it were.
 
“Well it’s true that the Romans’ favourite dish was putrefied pig guts. Kids love that bit. And when seeing in front of them how Henry VIII’s bizarre and rather infamous courtship of Anne Boleyn didn’t work out quite the way wedding guests had hoped, they’re transfixed!
 
“We’ve a special ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, entitled ‘Who Wants to Blow up Parliament?’! And we end with an Apprentice special where Lord Sugar grills General Haig on exactly what when wrong at the Somme.”
 
So is there something here for mum and dad too, or should they just bring a book and a pocket flashlight?
 
“We always make a great effort at the Birmingham Stage Company to cater for all. Yes, it’s primarily for the kids, but if we don’t make it somewhat accessible for the adults, they won’t come along, and nor will the youngsters! There’s something there for everyone.
 
“I suspect most adults and parents who attend think they’ll know most of what’s on offer when you’re talking about general history, but there’s an awful lot of fascinating stuff that’s come out in our research, and we’ve put together the production painstakingly so that every detail can have relevance to watchers of all ages.
 
“The good thing is it’s naughty and rude and silly - just the combination you’d expect Barmy Britain to be! Obviously we don’t want to upset the kids, but there are a few times when we let the tone of the play get quite cold and bleak. We want them to know that we are dealing with real people, people who went through these terrible times. It’s not all for laughs, but the serious moments are only short. We’re not here to traumatise anyone, that’s not really the business we’re in.”
 
With a recommended age limit of six upwards, parents can give their children the history lesson they’ve always wanted. But after performing initially in Birmingham, how do the audiences vary in the different locations.
 
“London audiences, just because of the range, are a little spoilt, and as an audience are a little bit ahead in theatre regards. But all in all, we don’t notice any massive change. It’s two hours up the road, not the other side of the world, and I think, in the whole, Brummies are pretty much up there with the Londoners now on a cultural scale.”
 

'Horrible Histories - Barmy Britainis' at the Garrick Theatre until September 1. Visit Barmy Britain's website for more details.
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