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Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War

Published 18 March 2009

Birmingham Stage Company once more applies its trademark Bogglevision effects to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to give young audiences an entertaining education about the First World War.

The programme for this latest pair of Horrible Histories – Frightful First World War and Woeful Second World War – is awash with nuggets of information that will pique the interest of children (and theatre critics), including the fact that the word ‘bumf’ originates from ‘bum-fodder’, meaning anything army soldiers used as toilet paper. It is in this vein that Birmingham Stage Company’s adaptation of Frightful First World War tackles the nitty-gritty of the Great War, proffering its young audience a factual, yet fun, account of history that entertains, yet manages to avoid trivialising.

The show is seen through the eyes of Angelica Taylor, our young heroine who becomes sucked into the Horrible Histories website after a lightning bolt strikes her computer. In order to get home she must first experience the horrors of World War One by joining the troops on the Western Front and glimpsing the fate of their families back home.

A somewhat slapstick beginning sees Angelica come to understand the origins of the war as representatives of the countries involved take to the boxing ring. This is an effective metaphor which both pitches the facts at a level a young audience should understand and illustrates the ridiculousness of war, depicting it as a school playground full of power-hungry bullies with inflated egos.

The majority of the show then focuses on the experience of troops in the trenches, as Angelica meets a young soldier whose diaries reveal his journey to the front line, the conditions in the trenches, the horror of no man’s land and the threat of court martial.

The five cast members play numerous characters as Angelica flits between the front line and the home front, where women risk their lives in munitions factories and the threat of air attack hangs heavy. Bone-crunching sound effects and panto-style audience participation are mixed with scenes of real poignancy.

The second half introduces a new element, BSC’s trademark Bogglevision. When viewed through a pair of special glasses, the action onstage is translated into 3D, bringing certain aspects of war up close and personal. Rats and lice get a little too close for comfort, tanks fire shells directly at you and the victims of the torpedoed Lusitania drown in front of your face. Judging by the shrieks from various young audience members, the effects got the desired response.

Presenting such a torrid and important piece of history in a manner which will both entertain and educate youngsters is no easy task, but with Terry Deary’s books as its source material, and a little technical wizardry, BSC keeps its balance admirably.

Frightful First World War plays in repertoire with Woeful Second World War at the New Wimbledon theatre until 21 March. They return to London in June at Richmond theatre.

CB

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