The Ensonglopedia of British History is the latest in a series of encylopedia-themed musical shows, from singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Hinton. Like its predecessors, it’s built around a quickfire A-Z format - with each letter the jumping-off point for a cleverly-worded, fact-filled song. The improbable target this time is to cover the past 40,000 years of British history (though the first 37,500 are despatched by the end of the letter A), so we’re clearly in for a rapid romp through both familiar and unfamiliar stories from our islands’ past.
As I’ve come to expect over the years, Hinton's madcap style is hugely enjoyable: the thrown-together feel is endearing, but there’s a great deal of thought and preparation hidden beneath the façade. An animated backdrop keeps us in sync with the historical timeline, while the songs are all original, filled with witty lyrics and audacious rhymes. The younger members of the audience are pulled in to help, as well - including one memorable reconstruction of the events of 1066, which felt like it was going to be impossibly complicated but in fact ran perfectly to plan.
Sad to say though, in a couple of important ways, I don’t think this Ensonglopedia works as well as the previous editions. The first issue is that, in order to accommodate the additional constraint of progressing in more-or-less chronological order, Hinton has to stretch the alphabetic format so far it loses its shape. It can’t be “I for Industrial Revolution”, for example, because that’s too early in the alphabet; instead, it has to be “N for Not A Nice Place To Work”. Sometimes these contrivances are funny or informative enough to get away with, but often they just feel forced.
The second point - which Hinton does anticipate, in a witty mock-up of a front page from the Argus - is that in any brief review of British history, the inclusion or omission of particular topics will always be controversial. I noticed the relative lack of Scottish stories, but that’s just because I happen to live there; perhaps more eyebrow-raising is the reduction of the Great Irish Famine to a parenthetical one-liner. We could argue any individual case until we’re exhausted, but my point is that these difficult choices - charged as they are with the weight of national identity - sit uneasily alongside Hinton’s generally irreverent tone.
Where he’s intentionally political, though, the messages land squarely and effectively. There’s a fine celebration of the NHS (which deserves bonus marks for working the phrase “free at the point of delivery” into a genuinely catchy tune), and a nicely-judged celebration of diversity to round the whole thing off. There’s a common thread, too, about how protest can lead to change, eloquently illustrated by a profusion of banners handed out to the audience during the show.
I love the way that Hinton continues to evolve and experiment with the Ensonglopedia format, and it’s just a shame that this particular re-invention doesn’t quite come off for me. But it got a great reception from the audience - both young and grown-up alike - and there are some lovely creative moments for all to enjoy. I’ve learned a few quirky facts and gained a few new perspectives, from a densely-packed and unquestionably entertaining hour.