A regular trip to the theatre for me (in more normal times) usually involves arranging a babysitter, reading a bit on the train on the way into London, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and then settling in to a slightly cramped seat with my programme in anticipation of the lights going down and the beginning of the show. But since March all of our theatres have been closed and live theatre has been suspended. I haven’t been to see a live show since January and although I’ve enjoyed some of the brilliant online broadcasts, it’s just not the same as seeing a show in person.
However, rules are starting to change and clever creatives have already begun to work out ways of bringing live shows to eager audiences. As you may have seen in my previous interview with Birmingham Stage Company’s Neal Foster, the drive-in tour of Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain has just begun and there was no way that I was going to miss it.
After months of lockdown it was a great adventure to clamber into the car on a grey Saturday morning in July and drive to Northampton Saints Rugby Club car park to watch some live theatre. It was made more exciting by not knowing quite what to expect from the experience of watching a show from inside my car.
When I booked my ticket I received an email which asked us to arrive at the venue half an hour before the show was due to start and assured us that stewards would guide us to parking spaces appropriate to the size of our vehicle (‘smart cars at the front, monster trucks at the back’). All we had to do was tune our radio to the correct frequency to be able to hear the show, settle down in our seats, and be ready to join in by honking our car horns and flashing our lights.
When we arrived I was really impressed by how efficiently our QR code tickets were scanned and we were quickly directed to where to park. All the cars were spaced out and the screen above the stage entertained us with a history quiz while we waited for the show to begin. Carts of popcorn and fizzy drinks were wheeled round to hungry patrons who had flashed their lights to signal that they wanted treats. As an audience experience, it was really relaxing to be able to spread out in the space of our own car and not worry about my small person climbing around or being noisy. We could only see the top halves of the actors onstage but we had a very clear view of the screen above and didn’t miss a word as it was all broadcast directly into the car.
The show itself is an absolute joy! It’s testament to the brilliance of Birmingham Stage Company that just two very talented performers on an almost bare stage with a basket of costumes and props can pack so much information and so many laughs into an hour-long performance. The name of the show is Barmy Britain and there’s no shortage of bizarre and extraordinary characters to use for material. From Boudicca to Guy Fawkes to Queen Victoria we were entertained and educated by songs, puppets, fart jokes, and silly props. Of course a drive-in theatre is the perfect place to learn about the car park discovery of Richard III and there’s no better time to talk about cures for the plague than during a viral pandemic. These subjects were shared with gusto and I’m pleased to say that no opportunity for a Barnard Castle eye test joke was missed.
The audience honked their support for all the silliness throughout – although I’m so conditioned to applaud at the end of a scene I found myself constantly clapping and then realising that the cast would definitely hear me better if I used the car horn instead. Oh, and be prepared to join in with a sing-a-long, even if you don’t think anyone else can hear you singing. And just like that, filled with information and having been entertained without stepping outside our car, it was time to go home. We were efficiently guided back out of the car park and we left the cast to prepare for their afternoon show.
I can’t recommend Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain highly enough. Not only is it great fun for all ages but the experience of watching from the space of your own car is a revelation. As a family trip to the theatre it meant that we didn’t have to worry about how to get there or where to park, about seeing over the heads of the people in front of us, or listening to the conversations of those who are chatting behind us. Of course I can’t wait to safely get back inside a real theatre and to not have to cheer from behind my windscreen, but this was a brilliant way to enjoy a theatre experience in this very unusual time.
Tickets for Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain are still available but be quick as our venue was almost sold out when I booked my place. You can find them by visiting the Birmingham Stage Company website. Don’t miss this chance to learn some history, have some fun, and experience theatre in a really unique way.