Horrible Histories; Random Musical

Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians; Random Musical, Sydney Opera House, July 4.

CHILDREN’S theatre is usually expected to have some educational value. Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians certainly had that for me. Before yesterday I had never heard of Horrible Histories! I was a complete and utter novice among the eager group of initiates crowding out the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House – well, I say eager; close to hysterical would be nearer the mark for some of those present. It was like being at a gathering of those devoted to an ecstatic religion, one from which I felt inexplicably excluded.

A scene from Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians
A scene from Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians

So what did I learn? I think the key take-away was that if the brand is as powerful as this one, you can get away with a great deal. Awful Egyptians has a lot of quite high-end information about Egypt and the Pharoahs – material I thought pitched rather too high for the 6+ recommended age group – interspersed with lots of low comedy. Lots.

When things started to drag there was nothing like a kick in the goolies to get things moving again. The performers mugged in time-honoured, old-fashioned end-of-the-pier fashion (the show originated in Britain), there was slapstick, corny jokes, yukky things flung about the stage and a song or two. I quite enjoyed the mummy-wrap rap. When invited, the kids joined in with gusto; when not invited, some took the initiative themselves. A small lad near me took quite a challenging attitude to some of the material, shouting out criticisms and suggestions.

After a too-long first half, the too-long second half had the advantage of featuring some very speccy 3D imagery, which both my inner child and my outer adult thought well worth experiencing. (Tragically I had no suitable child to take with me, so the inner child had to step up.)

The outer adult loved the ending, which featured Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Now I’m pretty sure the six-year-olds wouldn’t have got it, but it’s so great:

And on the pedestal these words appear –

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains.

Beforehand I’d seen Random Musical, which could not be more different from Horrible Histories. It’s in the smaller Studio and has far fewer performances, but in this show the magic of the theatre does the work that in Horrible Histories is done by the magic of technology. This is lo-fi versus hi-fi, sweetness and ingenuity versus the slick and emotionally empty.

In Random Musical a talented team gets on the metaphorical highwire and creates a show based around words supplied by the young audience. Grown-ups are not allowed to put their oar in. Yesterday the musical was called The Zany Ostrich, who turned out to be a pink-feathered creature who really wanted to be a penguin. Something that initially sounded as if it might be a bit of a dead end in fact turned out to be the basis for an incredibly engaging story that was easily able to be followed by the younger set while having enough sophisticated humour for the oldies. (Random Musical is recommended for five and above, which sounds about right. The audience needs to have an interest in and knowledge of vocabulary that can be used creatively.)

When participation was called for it was entered into with the highest of spirits, and the show could profitably have gone further with it. The story had plenty of scope for even more sound effects, and the joy with which kids imaginatively enter theatre in this way is always thrilling.

The plucky team works brilliantly together, but highest marks yesterday went to Rik Brown for his richly comic explorer’s song. And points to Rebecca De Unamuno as a low-fiving penguin. Scott Brennan, Gillian Cosgriff and pianist John Thorn complete this most entertaining and quick-witted group.

Random Musical ends July 14. Weekend shows only except for Wednesday July 10.

Horrible Histories ends in Sydney on July 14. There is now a third show on 5.30pm Saturday July due to heavy demand. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, July 19-21.

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