Terry Deary’s spicy histories for tweens are now a sprawling brand as much a coherent series – this latest stage spin-off literally ends with the actors plugging another ‘Horrible Histories’ show, the river-borne ‘Terrible Thames’. The target audience is unlikely to lose much sleep over this. But as an adult who has seen various stage versions over the years, I can’t help but feel that each new ‘Horrible Histories’ show from Birmingham Stage Company (who hold the theatre rights) basically rolls off an assembly line, rather than emerges from years of torturous artistic deliberation.
As with all live ‘Horrible Histories’ I’ve seen, ‘Terrible Tudors’ is a two-hander co-directed by Deary and Neal Foster and directed by Foster, performed by two actors who jovially ping historical facts back and forth, frequently breaking into lurid skits that go heavy on the gorier details.
It’s technically a new show, but there have been other ‘Terrible Tudors’ shows before, and they can’t have been that different, given this one boshes through so many of the dynasty’s greatest hits: there’s even a ‘which-side-of-the-audience-can-make-more-noise?’-off to ‘divorced, beheaded, died’.
Anyway, as ever it’s basically pretty good fun. I suppose the truth ‘Horrible Histories’ always points to is that love of history comes down to attitude. Here, we don’t actually learn much about Henry VIII, Elizabeth I or the other, lesser Tudors here that you wouldn’t learn in the classroom, it’s just that actors Ben Martin and Emma Swann gleefully barrel through the lurid bits at a rate of knots and make little effort to tax the audience with what it all means.
That’s fine, but you sense the franchise could be way more subversive if it made the effort: some brief asides about Elizabeth I’s hypocrisy regarding the slave trade feel way more troubling and genuinely informative than the five minutes devoted to explaining that yes, Henry VIII did indeed have his second wife executed.
You know what you’re getting with ‘Horrible Histories’, of course. But where the far better-resourced TV show has thrown up some genuinely sublime moments, the plays operate at a much less ambitious level. It’s good summer holiday content, the feeling you’re taking the kids to something that will both mildly entertain and mildly improve them. But for something so obsessed with naughtiness, ‘Terrible Tudors’ actually plays it very safe.