Preview: Horrible Histories, Pleasance Courtyard
NEAL Foster has a remarkable array of Scottish accents at his disposal. We’re sitting in a hotel in London’s Leicester Square, and he’s trying them out for me, jumping from Glasgow to Edinburgh to Aberdeen in the space of a sentence. It’s impressive stuff, but hardly surprising given the number of characters I saw him perform an hour earlier at the nearby Garrick Theatre.
Playing to packed houses in the West End before its Edinburgh run, Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain is a whistle-stop tour of British history, in which Foster – and fellow performer Alison Fitzjohn – change characters literally at the drop of a hat. From Viking invasions to the battlefields of the First World War, via Guy Fawkes and Henry VIII, the show looks at some of the memorable – if murderous – moments of life on these isles.
Now that Birmingham Stage Company is transferring the show to Edinburgh, though, it’s time for Foster to inject a little Scottish flavour – hence the accents. Out go some of the London stories that played so well to the local crowd there, and in come sections on Burke and Hare, William Wallace and the Viking landing in Iona, among others.
Foster co-wrote Barmy Britain with original Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, as well as directing it, performing in it and managing the company. It’s the latest of seven theatre shows that Birmingham Stage Company has created from Deary’s books, the first being performed in 2006 – three years before the award-winning TV series went on air.
Back then, people were just excited to see Deary’s books brought to life. Now they’re more demanding. “We’ve found people coming with an expectation that they’re going to see actors from TV,” says Foster. “But because the stage shows have always been good, very quickly they tune in to what we’re doing and have fun with that.”
The TV show hasn’t won awards for nothing, and the songs in particular attract an almost cult following. So it’s a true testament to Foster and Fitzjohn, and the sheer energy they put into their performances, that within five minutes of the stage show starting they’ve got the audience completely on side. But then the source material is, of course, the same.
“Both the TV series and us draw our inspiration from the books,” says Foster, “which are irreverent, silly and naughty. So they’re not going to be hugely different.
“But what they’ve chosen to do is create a sketch show. Whereas we set out to take people on a journey and tell a story, and by doing that you can be light and heavy, fun and serious, because there’s an arc to it. And for me that’s the power of theatre.”
A sense of humanity is one big difference between the two formats. The laughs come thick and fast on TV, and the educational aspect is undeniable. But rarely do you feel a sense of compassion. Foster, however, has dared to take a trip to the dark side. Humour is still high up the agenda, with Foster a master of accents and Fitzjohn a fine comic actress. Alongside that, however, is a subtle message that we’re not the first, that other people just like us used to live here.
“There are a few times in the show when I do what I call my dark moments,” Foster says. “We put them in every so often, to say we’re dealing with real people here. But the format of the show allows us to do that, because instantly we go back into funny stuff again, so it never ever gets too serious.”
One stand-out moment comes during a pastiche of The Apprentice. With Foster taking on the role of Alan Sugar, to great comic effect, and Fitzjohn playing Sir Douglas Haig, reporting back on the day’s activities at the Battle of the Somme. “It’s always fascinated me that as a society, we’re so shocked by 300 soldiers being killed in Afghanistan over ten years,” says Foster. “So I thought it was useful to remind people of a time when 60,000 men died on one day. It’s rare that anybody laughs at that moment – it has exactly the effect we want. You can sense people thinking ‘what, in one day?’ It’s truly shocking, so they just stop laughing.”
In another borrowing from television, Foster performs a mock version of Relocation, Relocation, Relocation to show how the Vikings moved in. And like the Horrible Histories TV series, on stage there is a song about Henry VIII called Divorced, Beheaded And Died, though set to different music. Yet surprisingly, Foster never watches his TV counterpart. “I saw the first programme of the first series,” he says, “and then I purposefully stopped watching it, because I never wanted to not do something, simply because they had.”
Other televisual parodies employed by Foster on stage include Who Wants To Blow Up Parliament, with Guy Fawkes attempting to answer questions, but sometimes having to ‘ask the audience’. Finding a way to introduce a new Scottish section also led him to re-create a primetime TV show.
“I wanted to do something on William Wallace,” explains Foster, “but there was actually nothing funny about his story. Then I thought, what if King Edward I of England went on the dating programme Take Me Out, and it ended up that his only two choices were William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.”
At which point Foster launches into his best broad Scots, setting the scene for me: “I want to take him out”, “No, I’ll take you out, mate – I’ll take you outside!”
It is Foster’s ability to drop in and out of characters that makes Barmy Britain such fun. Simply by putting on a different coat or hat, he and Fitzjohn take us from one century to the next, and there’s never any doubt who or where they are at any given moment. “Apart from the sound effects, it’s all pure theatrics,” says Foster, “and that’s what I love about it. It’s just a basket with lots of props and hats in, but we designed it that way so kids can probably go away to their bedrooms and do the scenes themselves afterwards.”
When Deary first sat down to write his Horrible Histories books, his desire was to bring the subject alive for the children reading them, and make it about real people, not just kings and queens. Foster’s stage shows are a natural extension of that, but because the children watching have adults sitting next to them, it’s a chance for everyone to look at historical life through a different lens.
“It’s nice that people come away from seeing the show having all sorts of discussions,” says Foster. “They don’t just walk away saying that was hilarious, they’re saying things like ‘did you know that many people died in the First World War?’”
Horrible Histories, Pleasance Courtyard, Friday until 26 August. www.horrible-histories.co.uk
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