We all want to meet people from history – the trouble is everyone is dead!
Therein lies the foundation of the fascinating and hugely successful Horrible Histories franchise. If you have children aged between about 6 and 12 you have no doubt heard of the fabulous UK TV series which hit our screens over recent times but has been running in the UK since 2009. The Horrible Histories stage show will be touring nationally come next month with Neal Foster, actor and Manager for the Birmingham Stage Company, literally unravelling an awful Egyptian in his haste to bring the show down under.
The stage show and TV series is based on the very popular Terry Deary series of books. Deary is one of Britain's best selling authors with a style, says Foster, that lends itself wonderfully to presenting the books on stage. "It means you can create dramatic stories full of fun, humour and gory bits which tell fantastic stories about the past. But we are always minded that these stories are about real people and sometimes about the awful things that have happened in the past, so there is a degree of reality that permeates the whole show. I went to Egypt in my 20’s and was really turned off by the apparent obsession with death: it was only when I saw our own production of AWFUL EGYPTIANS that I began to understand, enjoy and appreciate the culture of the ancient Egyptians and I loved the fact it was a children’s show that had given me this powerful insight into this extraordinary culture. We actually recreate the journey into the Afterlife on stage and it is this journey which makes things so much clearer about ancient Egyptian religion and culture."
"Mind you, we also wanted to retain Martin Brown’s incredible input into the books. Terry had the very clever idea of using a video screen as the set. I was against it! But he persuaded me to come with him to Middlesborough to meet a company that were pioneering video interaction and while we were there with Amazing Interactives I asked to look at their 3D work. Terry thought it would be too expensive but I was so excited about what it could do for our Horrible stage shows that I decided on the spot that was how we were going to produce them. So alongside the wonderful actors in the show, the video screen enables us to include wonderful cartoons in the style of Martin Brown which gives the theatre productions a strong flavour of the books."
Foster has been involved with the genesis of the Horrible Histories theatrical event since 2004 when his company was looking for their next exciting project. Terry Deary was contacted to see if he would be interested in putting HORRIBLE HISTORIES onto the stage. "Luckily for us, he was," says Foster. "We spent the next twelve months collaborating with each other on the show and launched the first production in 2005."
The TV series and stage production are completely separate entities however are all part of the Horrible Histories family. The stage show did, however, influence a decisions made by the TV producers: "The TV producers came to see our shows and commented that they weren’t planning to include songs in the series until they saw how well they worked in the stage show," Foster explains. "So it’s great to know that we were the inspiration for their songs which are such a strong feature of the TV series."
The TV series utilizes a number of actors playing a wide variety of roles. The stage show has a compact four actors who play multiple roles. "It is manic backstage as we all dive into different costumes and hats for the variety of characters and scenes," admits Foster, "but in the end it’s the skill of the actor which convinces the audience they are different characters as we don’t have time to do prosthetics or heavy make up – it comes down to different postures, accents and energy."
Foster plays a humble dozen characters in the show with his main role that of the explorer Horatio Storey, which he shall be playing as an Australian! "But I also like playing Grand Vizier Ay," admits Foster, " who looked after Tutankhamun until he was eighteen – and then killed him so he could become Pharaoh himself! I also love playing Seti, who is the father of the Ramasses the Great, because Seti is always upseti and often sits on the settee!"
Deary is an outspoken critic of schools stating that classroom teaching is no longer relevant and serves no purpose other than keeping children off the street. The makers of both the TV and stage varieties of Deary's blueprint pride themselves on imparting historical accuracy in a fun and engaging style – perhaps, indeed, a better way to educate than our current systematic approach? Says Foster: "We treat the historical accuracy of the show with the utmost importance and so far we have never had a single complaint about any of the facts in the show. The strange thing is that a lot of the facts are told as jokes and sometimes people don’t realise that everything we’re saying is factual. This means the audience are learning by accident, which is a fun way to discover things about our past."
This franchise is appealing to both the young and young at heart and is described by Foster as historical Monty Python, so if you like funny, zany, naughty, rude and gory ways of telling stories, Horrible Histories is fantastic fun. Foster feels that making people laugh has always been a good way of teaching people and Terry Deary found the perfect formula for attracting young and old to history. "We particularly like how much adults enjoy the show, as they are often surprised how much they learn too," Foster says. " And the 3D effects will make you duck and dive, whatever your age. It’s pure entertainment containing a wonderful amount of information – so it’s huge fun to perform."
"In fact," says Foster, " you are going to have the most enjoyable two hours in a theatre that you will experience this year – so don’t miss it!"
Horrible Histories – Live on Stage – Awful Egyptians plays at Her Majesty's Theatre in July