They’ve conquered cinema, telly and stages up and down the land. Now the Horrible Histories crew have commandeered a vessel for a lively show that’s part theatre, part sightseeing tour and fired by the same formula of shock and gore as the books.
Three years ago, we saw the bloodthirsty Terrible Tudors staged in the grassy moat at the Tower of London. This 45-minute river trip departs close by. Our hosts? Not a talking rat but a teacher and his unruly student (today played respectively by Roger Parkins and Harriet Munday, from a rotating cast). The pair are on a school trip, with the audience – including me and eight-year-old Hilda – becoming fellow students.
At least, we think that’s the idea. It’s all a bit of a blur at the start. In blazing sunshine, we take our seats on the deck and are soon cruising past London landmarks. In lieu of a plot, there’s a barrage of surprising facts and figures inspired by the buildings we pass. “It’s not just old history,” points out Hilda. We hear about the capital’s brand new 15-mile sewer, while a partygate gag by Westminster lets us reflect on the current stench in parliament.
But mostly it’s the kind of lineup you’d expect: Guy Fawkes, Mary Tudor, Boudicca and Julius Caesar are all given thumbnail sketches, their stories told at such a clip that you’re left missing or wanting more details. How come the Kray twins were at the Tower? Why can’t we hear more about the women who built Waterloo Bridge? Who exactly was “my fair lady” in London Bridge’s nursery rhyme?
But no detail is spared, in Terry Deary and Neal Foster’s script, of exactly what it meant to be hanged, drawn and quartered. If you weren’t feeling seasick you might well turn green after the cascade of grisly stories, vomit gags and toilet-humour tunes. “They’re obsessed with poo,” whispers Hilda. In one scatological rhyming ditty we’re told exactly why the Thames smells so … er, stinky.
It’s all vigorously done, with Munday rampaging up and down the deck, occasionally joined in insurrection by the teacher. Hilda already knows one of their jokes but is ready to remember what’s brown and sounds like a bell (“dung!”).
There’s a smattering of audience involvement – “it’s a bit like a panto” – but at times it’s a bit much for her, especially London’s past as a whaling port (“poor whales!”) and the lose-lose scenarios for suspected witches put to the swimming test. Amid so much jollity it’s particularly queasy to hear light-hearted quips about more recent history such as the 1982 hanging of Roberto Calvi, dubbed “God’s banker”, as we pass beneath Blackfriars bridge. But the register dramatically changes for some powerful dialogue about London’s role in the slave trade and an account of the remarkable life of Ignatius Sancho.
In Birmingham Stage Company and Woods Silver Fleet’s production, with the background noise of party boats and even the river police’s siren, rare moments of joy and stillness stand out. And on this baking summer day, the description of football games once played on the frozen Thames is somehow terribly affecting.