Horrible Herstories takes us on a swashbuckling journey through the past, exploring the roles of women in history through a playfully comedic lens. As someone who loves both history and offbeat comedy, I found a lot to enjoy about this show. The subject is deftly managed in the very capable hands of these five Cambridge Footlights, who show off some versatile acting and formidable writing chops to match.
Historical accuracy was perhaps not at the forefront of the Footlights’ minds, but I hadn’t turned up expecting a history lesson, so this was no problem for me. There was so much more to appreciate in the witty, creative and gloriously anachronistic sketches. Anne Boleyn’s Google autocomplete interview was a particular highlight, as was a Victorian spoof of Naked Attraction and an interview with one Mrs Henge, creator of Stonehenge. The Footlights have a knack for creating memorable characters, often with little more than a few lines of dialogue.
The jokes came at a machine-gun rate, and the historical characters—some more fictional than others—were equally silly as they were fun to watch. The performers needed a lot of versatility, each juggling a number of roles, some male, some female, but the task is capably pulled off. You can see how much fun must have gone into crafting the characters; some of the performances seem to have tumbled straight out of a cabaret act, much to the delight of the audience.
Now I should probably mention the hit CBBC TV show from which this production has clearly taken a lot of inspiration. The absurdist humour and Monty Python-esque performances which made Horrible Histories such a success is recaptured well by the Footlights. Seemingly dull characters are once again lifted from the pages of history, with help from a little creative licence. As with Horrible Histories, the effectiveness of the comedy rested on the performances, which were all stellar. In terms of the quality of the writing, many of the sketches would stand up against the best of their CBBC counterpart’s.
I must confess that I was a little confused by the story, which I felt was often eclipsed by the sketches. I didn’t come out of the show feeling I had learnt much. Though this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the show at all, it made the feminist theme a little redundant. The theme was there, but it was vague and I wasn’t really sure what point the Footlights were making, especially given that most of the women depicted were either entirely or partially fictionalised. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the show so much as of the marketing, which gave me the impression that the comedy was there to sugar a more serious pill.
In short, audiences shouldn’t come into the show expecting a vigorous feminist reevaluation of history, but rather a cleverly-written and very well-performed piece of historical comedy with feminist leitmotifs. If you enjoyed Horrible Histories, you will love this show.
Horrible Herstories, Greenside @ Nicolson Square, 22:00 (50mins) Aug 9-13, 15-20, 22-27
Image: Josh Baumring-Gledhill, provided by the production company as press material.