Theatre Review: Horrible Christmas at Royal Concert Hall

Words: Ian Kingsbury
Thursday 28 December 2023
reading time: min, words

Horrible Histories bring their Christmas show to the Royal Concert Hall... 

Horrible Christmas Production Image 4

With two nine year-old uber fans in tow (of both the Terry Deary books and the long-running CBBC series) we had high hopes of Birmingham Theatre Company’s festive take on the Horrible Histories franchise.

Now in it’s tenth year, Horrible Christmas is something of a ‘thinking kids’ panto’, peppering historical festive facts over a supremely fun and amusing series of songs and skits. Having read some of the books and dipped into the CBBC series, it’s actually not quite as ‘horrible’ or ‘gruesome’ as you might expect, but it nevertheless delivers in abundance on factoids and fart gags alike.

In a freshly roasted chestnut shell, it's the story of how Christmas came to be what it is today. We meet Sydney Claws, part Scrooge, part Grinch, who masquerades as Saint Nicholas as he travels back in time – with his goofy blue-nosed reindeer sidekick - to visit some of the seminal moments that shaped the Christmas traditions we know and enjoy today. Like the Grinch, a formative bad yuletide experience sees Sydney hell-bent on destroying Christmas forever.

But Sydney doesn’t have it all his own way.  A young boy, Watson, learns of Sydney’s nefarious plans while himself trying to take a sneak peak at his presents. Whisked along by a detective called Shirley Holmes, the pair pursue Sydney back through 2000 years to foil his Grinchian ambitions.

We chuckled, we booed, we sang along

As I say, it has all the ingredients of great panto with an additional dusting of historical interest which sets it apart. We go to Charles Dickens' house to see him having the idea for A Christmas Carol. We go back to po-faced Puritan times when Christmas was banned, then forward to Charles II to see him restore it. We find out that Henry VIII championed the eating of turkey and banned games on Christmas day, and in third century AD Turkey we learn that the tradition of gift-giving started with the philanthropic acts of Saint Nicholas of Myra. 

I already knew that our portly, ruddy-faced, red-robed image of Santa was set in stone by a 1930s Coca Cola ad-man, but I wasn’t aware that before this Saint Nic was commonly depicted in green.

We chuckled, we booed, we sang along and we learned a few things along the way. The writing is excellent – as you’d expect from Terry Deary – and the performances are terrific. The characters are large, the jokes come thick and fast, and the spirit of Horrible Histories is very much on display.

There are some great comic characters too – Charles Dickens’ shrill and overly enthusiastic housekeeper springs to mind – and many funny moments throughout. I particularly enjoyed having Ann Boleyn judge the ‘which side of the audience sang best’ competition, and her realisation, on not judging in favour of her husband, that the bond between her head and the rest of her body might soon be tested.

If you get a chance to see it and you have kids between six and ten, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Horrible Christmas played at the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday 27 December 2023 

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