Head to toe in Horrible History

Published September 30, 2013

When we heard that Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain was bringing another helping of gruesome gore to the West End, we just had to get in on the fact-packed action.

The second part of the history-heaped show, like its equally fast-paced predecessor, dashes from era to era quicker than a speeding TARDIS, all with the help of a wardrobe full of disguises and a cast who must shed and don each of their garbs in less time than it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 metres.

Never one to pass up the opportunity to make ourselves look silly, and excited by the prospect that Barmy Britain 2 boasts even more costumes than its recently returned ancestor, Official London Theatre couldn’t resist delving into the wardrobe department of the fun-filled family production and trying a few on for size.

“There are so many costumes and so many changes, it’s quite tricky,” the production’s costume designer Jackie Trousale told me at a working rehearsal of the ferociously fast tempo show earlier this month. Not only does she have to make the garments look like they belong on the shoulders of 18th century royalty – or indeed, a modern-day traffic warden, so varied are the characters in the time-leaping production – but she also has to ensure that they’re easy to get on and off.

It is cast members Lauryn Redding and Anthony Spargo who face this nigh-on impossible daily challenge, having to morph from Richard The Lionheart to Edward I, from Boudicca to – that influential figure of history – Paddy McGuinness, without losing the attention of the young audience, who, due to the fact that all of the costume changes happen on stage, are watching their every hat-donning, wig-aligning move. Not only that, they have to do the garments justice or, perhaps more appropriate in this case, pull them off. “You want to make them look as brilliant as they are but you’ve got three seconds to put them on,” Redding explained. Three seconds? I can hardly get a single sock on in three seconds, let alone a full Elizabethan gown complete with separate sleeves and a headdress. But this has all been taken into consideration by Trousale, whose use of those handy strips of sticky plastic ever-present in children’s shoe shops helps to speed up the process. “They’re all held together with Velcro so it’s easy to rip on and off without actually ripping the costume to shreds,” she explained. Easy, she said. I was to find out otherwise later on.

Clearly, a lot of time and effort has been put into these immaculate outfits, which Trousale has tried to keep historically accurate whilst adding “splashes of Horrible Histories” to up the fun factor, but this time and effort isn’t reflected in the care the actors are forced to show them on stage. “People spend hours sewing on these individual pearls and we just chuck it on the floor”, Redding told me, mimicking her words with a frantic arm-flinging gesture. This, I discovered, is no exaggeration after witnessing the scene of clothing carnage that resembles closing time in Primark at the end of the performance.

When initially told I could delve into this pile of theatrical threads, the excitement was that of a little girl being told she had free rein of Disney Store’s princess range, but after speaking to the exhausted double act, who told me that the items ranged from the “light” to the “sweaty”, I became slightly less enthusiastic about the prospect.

Committed nonetheless, I took to the ginger wig like Charlie Bucket to a bar of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, transforming myself into red-headed Celtic queen Boudicca, but at a somewhat lethargic pace in comparison to the show’s stars whose actions had looked like they were being played in fast-forward. In my defence, I had initially put the dress on back to front, which had been a hindrance to say the least. “Quick, quick, quick,” I remembered Spargo telling me earlier in the day, a description that couldn’t have been further from my first attempt. But then I found myself plunged into the deep-end with the sudden announcement by director Neal Foster that they needed the costumes for another run-through, leaving me no choice: miss out on my Disney Princess moment or embrace this Barmy Britain motto.

As the duo sprang into action once again, I should have been preparing myself for what was about to happen. I wasn’t and consequently received a blow to the face by a fast-moving garment, which Redding had launched at me so that I could begin trying them on. Soon they were coming thick and fast. Each costume that was no longer needed was hurled in my direction and I had little time to get out of the previous one, find somewhere to put it – I felt I had no right to “chuck it on the floor”, seeing as I wasn’t actually part of the show – climb into the next one, pose for a photo and tear it off again – thank you Velcro – before another one came hurtling towards me. Whether I was overcome by the spirit of the show or merely in a dire state of panic, my face even began to meld itself into the contorted expressions for which the Barmy Britain pair is so well known for adopting on stage.

Face aching and body exhausted, it certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when I turned up at the rehearsal. But I came away, not quite the calibre of a potential understudy, but having gained a valuable and hilarious insight into what it would be like to perform in the hectic history-based show.