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Horrible Histories - Barmy Britain at Arts Centre Melbourne

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by Heather Wallace (subscribe)
New to Melbourne from Canberra, I'm sharing hidden treasures as I find them. I'm a lover of the arts, film and museums so Melbourne was the obvious choice for new adventures!
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Horrible Histories, Queenie

Ever wondered what Henry VIII's Groom of the Stool did? Here's a hint, he wasn't wiping down a piece of furniture!

Horrible Histories takes a somewhat fundamental approach (rather like the Groom of the Stool) to imparting the weird, wonderful and wacky events of history. For the last 20 years it's been a series of successful books, followed by an animated TV series, then a stage play and finally a live action TV series.

The Birmingham Theatre Company is bringing Barmy Britain, their most successful Horrible Histories stage show, to Melbourne this week. Written by Terry Diary and Neal Foster, it started life as a forty-minute performance in London's Regent Park and has expanded its production time and go on to be the became the longest running children's show in West End history. Today the show covers 1800 years of history in just over 100 minutes, taking audiences on a rollicking romp through the ages with Queen Boudicca, Richard the Lionheart, Henry VIII and his many, many wives, his daughter Elizabeth I, Guy Fawkes, the misnamed 'body snatchers' Burke and Hare and finally partying on in the reign of Queen Victoria.

Being a history geek, I jumped at the chance to chat to Neal Foster about the show. In an enthralling conversation he let me into secrets long buried, including how many thought the Black Death could be cured by strapping a chicken's bottom on to hapless victims - which as he puts it "is the very latest in scientific advances".

What makes Britain so barmy?

To be honest we have had a lot of barmy leaders over the years. Henry VIII's personal copy of Invicta Veritas, published in 1532 and setting out why he couldn't divorce Katherine of Aragon, has his hand written inscription "What a load of rubbish".

What fascinates you about history?

There are so many funny and silly moments but then there are times when you get a chill up your spine. Like finding out that Richard the Lionheart executed more than 2000 Muslim prisoners, and you realise how similar the past and present is and how so many fears are the same today. When we show the Black Death and some of the ways people tried to cure it, it's similar to how people are feeling about Ebola today.

What's your favourite moment in the show?

The Burke and Hare number is a favourite. They're always called 'body snatchers' but the reality was they didn't do any digging; they murdered people off the streets of Edinburgh. The segment with them is funny but becomes extremely chilling. We have boggle vision for that part of the show, mixing live action with 3D.

Isn't live theatre 3D by its very definition?

That's true, but we also have 3D video screens with our live actors. We're the only stage show using this technology and it's very effective. We can bring history right into the audience with spears and hanging nooses and it changes how the audience is experiencing the show, they no longer feel quite so safe.

Is there an historical event or character you'd like to write an entire musical about?

Henry VIII is fascinating, I can see a musical version of his story, less Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and more Six Wives for One Groom. It would be very music hall and Gerard Depardieu would be marvellous as Henry.

Terry Deary really doesn't like Henry VIII very much yet he plays him so beautifully. He's a character that is personally admired in Britain and we're showing some of the less well-known aspects of his reign. His Groom of the Stool for example, the man who literally wiped his bottom, was one of the most important people at court and was very influential.

When you're researching events to include in Horrible Histories, what do you look for?

Stories just seem to come to us. You can be reading the paper about something that's happened and think "that can't possibly be true." History is a mystery and it's fun unravelling the past. It's much more interesting than the folklore that tends to replace history, underneath the stories we think we know there is a hardness and ruthlessness.

Are there any historical events too sensitive to make into a stage show?

I wrote a scene for another Horrible Histories show, Groovy Greeks, about slaves. The books don't mention slaves, but slaves made up about a third of the ancient Greek world and did so many of the jobs that made society work that I thought it was a disservice not to include them. Like showing the Black Death as similar to Ebola, it's a way of highlighting problems that exist today that we don't think about, slavery is still an issue today.

Is Britain still barmy?

Oh absolutely, we're as bonkers as ever! You just have to look at UKIP (UK Independence a right-wing political party wanting the UK to withdraw from the European Union). Its success has taken many by surprise and they really completely barmy. Britain has always had a fairly irreverent view of its leaders, and with that lot there's fodder for years to come.

Arts Centre Melbourne - Playhouse Theatre

Wednesday 21st January 7.00pm
Thursday 22nd January 11.00am & 3.00pm
Friday 23rd January 11.00am, 3.00pm, 7.00pm
Saturday 24th January - 11.00am, 3.00pm, 7.00pm
Sunday 25th January - 3.00pm

Bookings: 1300 182 183 or

Ticket Prices:
A-Reserve $59
B-Reserve $49
Family of 4: $49

Duration: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval
Suitable for ages 6
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When: 21 25 January 2015
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Cost: From $49
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