Review by Harry Bower
Making history funny is traditionally a route to success. Horrible Histories, Drunk History…Blackadder? Everyone likes to laugh at the past. Maybe because it’s comforting, and maybe because it’s somehow simultaneously relatable and unrelatable, depending on how far back you go. Bloody Mary: LIVE! though is a whole different kettle of fish.
What makes this one-act show such a triumph is actually not the history or the context, it’s the performer. Olivia Miller plays the thirteen year old Mary Tudor, England’s first queen; and she is absolutely formidable. From the minute she walks onto stage, she captivates everyone in the audience, manipulating our emotions and whipping herself into a frenzy about the unfairness of being brought up in a broken home (much more broken than the modern equivalent) and spending your life feeling helpless. With the help of smart costume design she embodies angsty teenage Mary in such a way that I can genuinely not imagine another actor playing this part in any production, ever, despite the American accent.
The show itself leans pretty heavily on audience interaction. For the most part, that goes well and the interaction is used to move the narrative along. There are some moments though where this falls short, usually through no fault of the writer – for example when an audience member when asked for their favourite villain says “Dick Dastardly” from Wacky Races, only to find out that half the audience AND the actor on stage have no idea who that is. It’s down to the charisma and wit of Miller that these moments didn’t derail the show. Though it’s not just rubbish audience answers that come across a little wooden with some interactions seemingly there for the sake of making it feel more like we’re at a traditional stand-up show, than a piece of theatre.
The show lurches from period-appropriate stand-up jokes, most of which land effectively, to dramatic self-reflection and an attempt at justifying or explaining our late Queen’s actions. It’s these transitions which take you out from the laughter and remind you of the violence and brutality of that time period. Mothers killed and locked up, the trashing of Catholicism, the smell and taste of burning bodies, I could go on. And Bloody Mary does so. It is a really effective storytelling mechanism which is somewhat educational but is more there as entertainment than to be an effective defence of Mary’s actions. There was some brilliant use of the microphone in these moments, using it when the stand-up was more functional and traditional and not using it when exploring a more emotional or true-to-life emotion or story.
Then there’s the feminist take on the whole narrative too, Mary reminding us that many brutal men throughout history were never given nicknames like ‘bloody’ and that the 1500s was a primitive time where female children were sold off to the highest bidder. These are not revolutionary thoughts or ideas but told in this format is novel, which helps the audience see Mary’s story in a new light.
Honestly at stages watching this show was like watching an emotional breakdown in real-time. Such is the sharp writing and the performance of Miller that I felt we were literally watching a thirteen year old teenage girl trying to justify her actions, fresh from a session of door slamming and swearing at her parents.
Is this show an effective defence of the actions of Bloody Mary, just because others did worse things than she and got away with it more? No. Does the show at least allow the audience to have some sympathy for Mary and an understanding of what might have led her to behave the way she did? Absolutely. It’s also bloody good fun, and well-paced. My cheeks hurt from smiling.
I’ve never seen a historical figure portrayed as a stand-up character before. The production is heading on tour shortly around the UK and I can strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something innovative, creative, and impactful, not to mention very funny.
Bloody Mary has now concluded its VAULT Festival run. Tickets for the festival can be purchased at vaultfestival.com
Photos by Ashley Garrett