Birmingham Stage Company

Horrible Histories World Wars

The Times

Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War

Just days after Henry Allingham, Britain’s oldest surviving First Word War veteran, was honoured by Fance as officer of the Legion d’Honneur, it’s pleasing to find a theatrical endeavour that raises awareness of that devastating conflict. The Birmingham Stage Company’s Horrible Histories series, based on Terry Deary’sbooks, has been delighting and enlightening families for three years. This new show and its touring companion, Woeful Second World War, tackle 20th-centuryevents with a darker tone that acknowledges both their awful scale and their proximity to our own troubled times.

Our guide, in Mark Williams’s adaptation directed by Phil Clark, is the 12-year-old Angelica. Stuck indoors on a rainy day, she finds an old history book. Frustrated by its dry account of the Great War, she goes online in search of a version that includes “the horrible things! The terrible, truthful things!”. By some technological magic, she is sucked into the website and unable to return home until she has experienced the horrifying realities of war.

The show’s first half, with video design by Jacqueline Trousdale, engagingly mixes historical incident with human detail. The shooting of Archduke Ferdinand and the escalation of hostilities, conveyed here in a multinational boxing match, are offset by a gorily entertaining scene in a field hospital, an introduction to trench cuisine (all turnips and rock-hard, rat-nibbled bread) and a sequence exposing immoral recruitment practices in which a boy of 15 is encouraged to lie about his age and briskly signed up.

The second half is livelier still, with the introduction of 3-D special effects for which you must put on special glasses. The action becomes startlingly vivid; vermin swarm among the audience, shells explode under your nose and the doomed Lusitania cruises right into the auditorium.

It’s the simpler moments that really resonate. Back in London, women labouring in a munitions factory perform a highly dangerous job for half of men’s pay. Asked what they are fighting for, the Tommies in the trenches can only wryly respond, “We’re here because we’re here.” And the final image of poppies floating down over Passchendaele is powerfully affecting. Horrible, yes, but thankfully not trivialised history.

by Sam Marlow

Regardless of your age, you will come away from this excellent production enriched. It is a very bold and educating piece of theatre that deals with this sensitive and shocking subject matter in a way you can only praise and respect.
Theatreworld Magazine

Amazing, brilliant, fantastic, excellent, cool - these are all the words my year 8 students used to describe, what they thought about the production of Horrible Histories - Woeful Second World War.

The actors and actresses took us, the audience, into their play about World War 2, bringing home the reality of war. The amount of knowledge in the production was great; they certainly learnt a lot in just two hours.

If the first half wasn't great enough, the students were then amazed in the second half with the 3D effects. It is a truly excellent show.

Students and teachers at the Thomas Deacon Academy would like to say a huge thank you for a most enjoyable afternoon. I am really hoping that this production will be on next year

Claire Scane, Thomas Deacon Academy


Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War

TERRY Deary has brought his own unique blend of fun and information to the stage with a pair of theatrical events, Frightful First World War and the show that we saw, Woeful Second World War. It captures the essence of war-time Britain, seen through the eyes of two young evacuees.

Neighbours Alf and Sally are bundled off to the Welsh countryside after their school in Coventry is blitzed. Off they go, with their gas masks, comics and letter-writing equipment to head for a new world of farms, fresh air, and, in Sally's case, slave labour at the hands of a wicked farmer's wife. On their train journey they encounter an injured RAF pilot, whose dramatic escape from a prisoner of war camp is echoed as their own stories unfold.

Throw in some 3D glasses and special effects and you have a show which is quite unlike anything kids will get at school - but which must be worth a fortnight of history lessons. They'll have no idea they've learned so much about air raid shelters, bombers' moons, Hitler, Munich and much, much more.

It's all threaded together with a proper storyline, plenty of comedy - Sally paints the cows white, so they can be seen at night - and dream sequences that convey some of their anxieties as they're wrenched from everything that is safe and familiar.

And throughout it all Mr Deary has distilled the essence of an era, with the songs and the propaganda, together with the constant refrains that careless talk costs lives and above all, that we must never surrender.

by John Jeffay

Nominated for Manchester Evening News Award for Best Special Entertainment

Mortgage the school if you have to. Ransom the governors, even. No child, or adult, should be denied the chance to see this: live theatre and history at its rip-roaring best.
Times Educational Supplement


Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War

The excellent Birmingham Stage Company is currently on tour with two plays based on Terry Deary's Horrible Histories. Woeful Second World War is performed alternatively with Frightful First World War, which has been adapted for the stage by director Phil Clark.

Frightful First World War is shorter, sharper and has more impact. Chronicling major events of the time, which have been simplified for secondary school children, it's told through stories enacted by the superb, four-strong cast who appear in a variety of disguises.

Ciaran McConville and Laura Dalgleish play everything from Germany and a field doctor to Belgium and a mother. Matthew Schmolle plays Paul, a 15-year-old soldier, while Perry Lambert is the pivotal character of Angelica, who becomes trapped inside her computer during the First World War.

When the audience dons the Boggle Goggles, the excitement is palpable and screams reach deafening pitch as missiles and debris appear to aim directly overhead, thanks to the superb 3D effects.

The combination of Deary's powerful writing, Mark Williams' skilful adaptation and Clark's equally skilful direction, plus the creative team of Jacqueline Trousedale and Amazing Interactives, Tom Lishman's excellent sound effects and Jason Taylor's first-rate lighting, make this an informative and enjoyable experience for adults and children alike.

Punctuated with humour and audience participation, the important message remains clear and is punched home in the midst of battle. Yet another superb example of history brought vividly to life.


Horrible Histories - Woeful Second World War

Heard of Bogglevision? This brilliant 3D device is used with impressive affect in the second half of Terry Deary's insightful look at conflict, seen through the eyes of two children. War is vividly realised in the bombing of Coventry, which has the adults, as well as the children in the audience, ducking as the bombers fly overhead on their way to destroy the city.

Not, you may think, suitable material for primary school children and yet Deary has an uncanny knack of knowing what intrigues and involves children in theatre.

There's lots of songs of the period to jolly the pace along as we meet the two children who are evacuated from Coventry to Wales. Matthew Schmolle is football-mad Alf, who always has a cunning plan, whilst Perry Lambert is equally good as the animal-hating Sally.

There are excellent performances too from Ciaran McConville and Laura Dalgleish, who play Alf's dad and Sally's mum, as well as a wide variety of other roles.

This exciting story is told against a series of cleverly changing backgrounds which are part back-projection and part video-enhanced by computer graphics.

Congratulations must go to director Phil Clark and Jaqueline Trousdale for the design and screen illustrations, as well as to Amazing Interactives for the 3D special effects, which end with a poignant reminder of those lost in battle.

Another feather in the cap of the Birmingham Stage Company and Deary.


Frightful First World War, adapted by Mark Williams, Belgrade, Coventry

A seething mass of parents, grandparents and excited children of assorted size and age are milling around the Belgrade foyer as the strains of patriotic Music Hall songs drift out of the open doors of the main auditorium. As the audience settle into their seats, bags of sweets rustling noisily, it seems that The Birmingham Stage Company are facing a tough challenge - how to make the First World War 'fun' whilst still conveying the understanding of its futlity and tragedy. It was a challenge they rose to magnificently, helped by the enduring appeal of Terry Deary's popular books - history with the horrible bits left in - and a group of talented actors adept at enthusing a crowd of holiday-happy youth.
Ciaran McConville and Laura Dalgleish double and triple roles as England, Germany, Belgium, doctor, mother and soldiers, at one point exhorting the audience to shout their support for some truly revolting recipes inflicted on the men in the trenches - the memory of chestnut curry will linger for a very long while!

Matthew Schmolle, as Paul, a young soldier, and Perry Lambert as Angelica, the girl sucked into the war by her malfunctioning computer, lead this versatile cast of five as they grumble, joke, sing, cook and fight their way over the Western Front on a beautifully lit and visually effective set . After the interval the audience join them with the help of 'boggle glasses' and 3D technology - there is great fun with splatted rats - but ultimately the true tragedy of this 'war to end all wars' is brought home and the total silence of the audience in the final moments of the play, as the poppies drift and settle is a tribute not only to cast and writer, but to the whole production team.

This is a great way to introduce a generation to a war now receding into the mists of history and to give a meaning to the deaths of those that fought and died so needlessly. So, get out of your 'charpoy', put on your 'daisies' and 'alley bumf' with your family to the Belgrade!

I am a primary drama teacher and I haven't enjoyed a piece of theatre in education or even a theatre show aimed at children as much as I enjoyed these informative and entertaining shows! THEY ARE THE BEST SHOWS FOR CHILDREN I'VE EVER SEEN!
Wendy Taylor, Tilehouse Combined School, Bucks

The latest sensation on the theatrical block. The audience shrieked as cannon balls whizzed over the stalls and the children were hooked. The auditorium seems fit to combust spontaneously in an explosion of joy and excitement

The Times

An amazing show with real stories that made you happy that we do not live in those terrible times!
South Wales Echo

Inventive sets and spectacular 3D effects brought history to life in a way that text books could never achieve
The Birmingham Post

I learned more about history in two hours than I ever did at school. HORRIBLE HISTORIES is bloody, gory and fun all the way!
Hull Daily Mail

A history lesson all the children seeing it will never forget. Great storytelling with unexpected brilliant touches. A spectacular show
South Wales Argus

A broad, funny and surprisingly hard-hitting entertainment. The sheer novelty of BOGGLEVISION adds immeasurably to youthful excitement and makes this show something very special indeed!
The Stage

This production is a history lesson so totally absorbing that my children talked about it for days afterwards!

Both shows are incredibly lively fun and genuinely educational. I loved it, the wildly enthusiastic school-age audience loved it, and you'd surely love it too!
Manchester Evening News

This fast and furious show melts away the boundary between audience and stage. We weren't just learning about history, we were living it! My son said it was the best thing he's ever seen!
The Stratford Observer

Wholly accessible, educating, entertaining and enjoyable, HORRIBLE HISTORIES live on stage is a tour de force. Five stars out of five!

An ideal springboard for making history fun and interactive; take the class you won't be disappointed!
Teachers Preview Club

History was never my best subject, but it might have been a different story if I had been taught like this! The production was met with an ecstatic response from the schoolchildren
Southampton Echo

Laptop illusions add a startling extra dimension to live theatre

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EVER since prehistoric man donned the skins and horns of his prey to re-enact the hunt around the campfire, the theatre has been looking for bigger and better ways to suspend the disbelief of its audience.

Proscenium arches, apron stages, theatre in the round and back projections have all added to the magic. Now, for the generation brought up on computer graphics and cinematic special effects, comes Bogglevision - live 3D illusions that allow virtual objects to float in space and interact live with anything that happens in the auditorium.

The live 3D is being tried out for the first time this week by the Birmingham Stage Company, whose patrons are Sir Derek Jacobi and Paul Scofield.

Historical figures and events are to be brought to life in stagings for children based on the Horrible History books by Terry Deary. Audiences will see portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I hover above their heads and find themselves dodging cannonballs and pieces of wood when a ship of the Spanish Armada is struck.

The objects come right at the audience, fooling the brain into believing they are real. At the trial in Darlington last week children were excitedly reaching out to grab them.

Until now 3D technology used in the theatre has been pre-recorded so that the excitement of live performance was lost. Neal Foster, 39, actor- manager of The Birmingham Stage Company, said that 3D shows by Universal Studios and Disney were thrilling, but that every show was identical. "You feel slightly manipulated from that point of view," he said. "It's the same show for everyone."

Bogglevision, which has been registered for a patent, allows the technology to adapt to whatever happens on the night. "It dissolves the boundaries between the stage and the audience," says Foster. "As a theatre person, the live element is crucial to me. Live theatre should be live."

In Horrible Histories, as characters on stage search for a missing book, a member of the audience is asked their name and sees it appear instantly in a 3D book that suddenly floats, dancing in space, in front of them. For a child, in particular, that is a magical moment.

Foster was initially sceptical about the idea but was convinced by a demonstration by Amazing Interactives, the company that has developed it.

When cannons started firing in rehearsals for the production, even though he knew they were not real, he found himself ducking. "It?s impossible not to duck when a giant cannonball heads towards your head," he said. "I couldn't help but flinch."

Tim Dear of Amazing Interactives, which has until now specialised in special effects for visitor attractions said. "Stereo vision is used by Disney, but it?s

never live, It?s never been done before. All the software we've developed for this production will run live."

The technology, run through a laptop computer, allows up to 60 set changes. Members of the audience wear special polarised glasses, which resemble ordinary spectacles rather than thered and green cardboard ones that proved such a failure in 3D cinema.

The technology will be made available to other companies, although particular care will be taken to ensure it does not become something ordinary by being used too widely.

Foster believes that the new technology could transform theatre productions worldwide. The reason too many people stay away, he believes, is that 80 per cent of the productions offered at the moment are disappointing.

"If I had my way," he said, "I would make it a criminal offence to bore an audience."

Horrible Histories ? which are staging The Terrible Tudors and The Vile Victorians based on some of the most popular non-fiction books in children?s libraries ? will receive a national tour, visiting the New Theatre in Cardiff and The Lowry in Salford among seven venues.

by Dalya Alberge - The Times 12/9/05