"Barmy Britain" creates comedy gold from history lessons

"Barmy Britain" creates comedy gold from history lessons

Horrible Histories is an award-winning edutainment franchise famous for teaching history in a fun way

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Anthony Spargo and Alison Fitzjohn performed as dozens of characters to bring history to life.
Anthony Spargo and Alison Fitzjohn performed as dozens of characters to bring history to life.
Photo: ABA Productions

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Horrible Histories goes through hundreds of years of British history, and not for one second is it boring.
Horrible Histories goes through hundreds of years of British history, and not for one second is it boring.
Photo: ABA Productions

Horrible Histories came to Hong Kong with a live show on Britons, including Barmy Britain (Part Two), for the KidsFest theatre festival. Young Post's junior reporters were invited to review the show, and this is what they thought …

Fun for young and old

I expected a children's show from Horrible Histories, but it was much, much more.

The history of Britain was told by just two performers: tall, slim Anthony Spargo, and short, stout Alison Fitzjohn. The pair looked comedic just standing next to each other.

They started things off with a song (sung in heavy but understandable Scottish accents) that explained the history of the British who ran away up north from the Romans, living in the rough with a rich culture.

It was a great start to the show, and the children, even those with short attention spans, were immediately entertained by the energetic singing and frumpy costumes. It was not only a great script that had them engaged, but also the chemistry between the actors. Every now and then, they'd comfortably and subtly slip out of their roles into an easy friendship, cracking jokes based on the audience's reactions.

Anthony Spargo and Alison Fitzjohn together makes an incredibly dynamic duo. Photo: ABA Productions

The show then travelled through time into the dark period of the Black Death. Here, instead of just the couple on stage performing a song, we got a real treat: a song that included the audience. It was short, and they showed the words, so anyone who could read could have fun with it.

The lyrics went like this: "First you feel a little poorly, then you start to swell (the crowd blows a raspberry) / Then you start to spit some blood and then you really smell (shout 'pong!') / Then you know it's time to ring your funeral bell (shout 'dong!') / Then along comes Mr Death and takes you back to hell (shout 'gone!').

It's very morbid, but it was fun, and the dark humour got the parents laughing and engaged along with their kids. It was an effective way of getting everyone to enjoy the show.

They even managed to squeeze in a little volunteer opportunity, allowing the actors to really get cheeky with one audience member.

They picked a girl near the front row and told the rest of us how she was infected with the bubonic plague, and proceeded to show how many cures were thought of back then, a time when people relied more on myth than science.

There were lots of little facts included in the jokes.

Not only were they "horribly" entertaining, they were teaching the kids little things about "Barmy Britain", just as the Horrible Histories books used to do for us 90s kids.

Sharon Cheng


Good times with the Tudors

Getting off to a flying start, Horrible Histories' two dynamic actors sang a catchy (and educational!) tune about Boudicca, who was queen of the British Iceni tribe. This incredible woman had come up with tactics that could defeat the Roman army, and for that, she definitely deserved the show's rendition of We Will Rock You, with the altered lyrics, "we will smash you!"

Following that, we witnessed the single most entertaining undercover mission the world has ever seen, starring Queen Elizabeth I, complete with sunglass disguise. The daring queen travelled through Terrible Tudor England, meeting the strangest characters: an untrained executioner, a so-called "whipping boy", and last but not least, Henry VIII's "stool master" (bottom-wiper). Pretty sure that isn't a position I'll be applying for anytime soon!

Then, we went forward 100 years to hear the notorious tales of the Essex Gang. Beginning with stories of the gang's looting, we heard the astounding account of Dick Turpin, the gang's leader, and how he faced his eventual arrest and death - just because he shot a chicken!

The play took us through hundreds of years of British history, yet never bored us. From making us stand to honour the haughty queen Victoria to shooting us with water pistols, it wasn't your typical history lesson.

As an added bonus, we got to sing along to various songs about history, and perform silly (and often rude) actions. Never underestimate the power of a catchy rhythm to help you remember historical facts!

The visual effects were also great, ranging from (hopefully) fake severed heads to colourful, elaborate costumes that were entertaining all on their own.

Hilarious moments were scattered throughout, and for history buffs and pun lovers alike, history could never be so fun as it was in Barmy Britain.

There was something for all ages, from juvenile jokes to satire. To put it shortly, 'twas horribly good stuff!

Siri Livingston


Learning while laughing

The two-man show from Anthony Spargo and Alison Fitzjohn had the perfect mix of craftiness and wit. It let them hold the children's attention, while still being age-appropriate, which was tough, given that the audience comprised three- to eight-year-olds.

When Spargo and Fitzjohn started talking about William Burke and William Hare, we were all wondering how they would tell children the tale of two cold-blooded mercenaries, killing people in their sleep.

Queen Victoria graced the show with her presence - and her crazy rap skills. Photo: ABA Productions

First, Spargo and Fitzjohn explained that Burke and Hare were grave robbers, who sold corpses to a doctor. After a while, Fitzjohn backtracked, and asked the young audience if they wanted to know the truth about the issue. That's when they really told the story of Burke and Hare, who killed tenants in their house, selling their bodies to a surgeon for the sake of profit.

But instead of telling the tale by rote, Spargo and Fitzjohn added a lot of humour to it, with funny facial expressions, exaggerated British accents, and over-the-top gestures. This helped make the atmosphere less grim, while still showing the importance of that period in history.

This is the magic of Spargo and Fitzjohn - being able to make history, which many consider boring, so interesting for young children. The duo criticised historical figures with surprising accuracy and humour, such as their presentation on Queen Victoria.

Spargo told the audience to stand up to greet the Queen who "owned a quarter of the world, and a fifth of the world's population" at the time.

He recited an extensive list of the countries and islands the Queen owned (even extending to the Falkland Islands).

Queen Victoria, dressed in black and wearing a frown - her trademark clothing and expression following the death of her husband - looked as morbid as could be. That's when, unexpectedly, she suddenly started rapping as she spoke to the crowd about respect.

The audience burst out laughing at the sheer irony of it all, especially when Spargo jokingly referred to Queen Victoria as "Vicky with a V".

The show, with all of its humour, was extremely effective in both educating and entertaining the young audience - in an appropriate manner - with both Spargo and Fitzjohn showing some amazing skills.

Cynthia Huang

 

KidsFest shows are being held at HKAPA until Sunday. For more information, visit the KidsFest website.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
History-making comedy

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