Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans + Awful Egyptians

Live action & 3D special effects recreate historical figures & events.
The Birmingham Stage Company at the New Theatre

November 27, 2007
Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans

Using the context of two unlicensed British tour guides trying to tout for trade in modern day Rome, The Birmingham Stage Company tell the tale of the Roman Empire. A heated debate is sparked up when a rival Italian tour guide describes the Romans as ‘remarkable’. The ‘Horrible Histories’ version shows the Romans as ‘ruthless’ by leaving all the disgusting bits in, such as Nero’s execution. This is a profound lesson for the young audience in how history varies, depending on who is telling it. The energetic ensemble cast of five flies through a phenomenal number of characters and costumes under John-Paul Cherrington’s experienced direction. Alison Fitzjohn kicks the story off as vestal virgin Rhea Silva who gives birth to Romulus and Remus, twin boys fathered by Mars in a dramatic opening sequence. So many fascinating stories unfold like the triumvirate of rulers who join forces to rule for ‘the good of Rome’. The triumvirate includes Julius Caesar of whom the Italian tour guide Vito (Mehdi Rezvan) shows a huge sense of national pride and then extols the virtues of Augustus his successor. Again, it is only true to say Augustus is one of the best Emperors if in fact you are Roman!

The executions of the successive Emperors are shown with bold stage combat moves that fill the theatre with instantly wicked drama. Centurions in full armour whip the audience into shape and pick out the most promising recruit who gets to join the Roman Army on-stage. Onto a gigantic screen famous Roman landmarks are projected such as the Pantheon and a virtual tour of the Colosseum is included complete with a visit from one of the many wild beasts held in its basement. This fast-paced show entertains and educates in equal measures. The gladiator culture evolves from folk taking revenge against the murder of their loved ones after a funeral ceremony. The sport becomes so popular it begins to be performed before the funeral has taken place and professional gladiators are trained to make the occasion even more entertaining. Lots of groan out-loud jokes fall out: Why was the lion smiling? He swallowed a woman and was ‘glad he ate her’!

The recreation of the battle scenes on the screen, using ‘Bogglevision’ and wearing 3D glasses after the interval, is jaw dropping. King Caratacus’ final Welsh battle at Fort Llanymynech is particularly breathtaking as stray fireballs appear to land in the auditorium. The audience ducks as virtual arrows fly overhead from the military technology Romans develop to pelt out multiple arrows. Heads fly out of the screen in the depiction of a Celtic settlement and a spooky sea of corpses is created to depict Boudicca’s battle at the mouth of River Thames where the outnumbered Romans rule the day through their superior organisation.

There is plenty of audience participation. Cast your vote with a shout to the Anne Robinson look-alike who hosts the contest; who is the weirdest ruler? Tiberius, Caligula and Nero each state their claims. Next year the company returns with the Vile Victorians and Terrible Tudors but for now caput mundi makes the best story. It all started from those twin brothers (played by Ciaran McConville and Abi Rahman) arguing over which hill the she-wolf brought them up on, Aventine or Palatine, and ended when the ruthless Roman subjects booted out their last Emperor (also a Romulus) in 476AD. The Birmingham Stage Company came, we saw and the story conquered.
Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians

Part panto, part history lesson and all fun, Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians is a delightfully silly romp around ancient Egypt. Based on the popular series of illustrated books for children by Terry Deary, it brings to life all sorts of interesting and awful things from ancient times. It is told through the adventures of grave-robbing Mr. Story, his hapless sidekick Bill and tourist Maisey, who are transported to the past by curator-turned-ancient-Egyptian, Ramses II.

The performance was peppered with musical numbers including a lovely ballad by Isis about collecting her husband’s body parts, a very funny ‘wrap’ rap about making a mummy, and an Egyptian funeral song including an audience sing-along, actions and pitting the boys against the girls. One of the highlights of the show ‘how to make a mummy’, which involved removing internal organs from a body on a gurney (including a rather goopy bit of brain that Bill threatened to throw into the audience), which drew gasps, yelps and squeals of delight (and possibly terror, from more squeamish youngsters).

The audience was kitted out with 3D glasses for the second half, which brought to life the computer animation set projected on stage. Though it wasn’t quite the CGI seen in multi-million pound Hollywood films, it certainly did the job, with various objects seemingly flying at the audience including a snake, a mummy, rocks and the contents of an Egyptian tomb. One lucky audience member even had her name floating above the crowd, to help the explorers de-crypt the code for a tomb.

Awful Egyptians is a little heavy on the puns, but given the audience of giggling children, it was pitched about right in terms of humour: real groaners like the (dead Egyptian) mummy wanting his mummy (but is reminded he is a mummy); or poor Isis searching for the scattered body parts of her husband/brother Osiris and asking for a hand (a severed hand was promptly thrown on stage). The hapless sidekick Bill was particularly exaggerated for comic effect, which as an adult I found a bit much, but the kids seemed to love it, which was the whole point really.
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