First night review A Little History Of The World by Toby Hulse based on the book by E H Gombrich as translated into English by Caroline Mustill “Once upon a time…” is the classic opening line of childhood story books. And thus we have the premise for Toby Hulse’s brilliant new play based on E H Gombrich’s international bestseller A Little History of the World.

This is an energetic romp through history, starting at the beginning of time with scientific big bang stuff and Neanderthal man through to the First World War, with much else in between.

If all this sounds rather buttoned-up and academic, then think again. Using pacey moves, witty dialogue and quick-fire comedy, Watermill director Paul Stacey and Reading Rep take us on a highly enjoyable tour through the cultures and key events of the centuries that have shaped the way we are today.

Sounds a bit like something the Reduced Shakespeare Company would do? Yes, that’s true, but nothing wrong with that. This show, performed in the small confines of the Watermill stage, compares very well indeed to those of that well-established theatre group.

The original book was written in 1936 in just six weeks by cash-strapped Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich and, although pitched towards children, was enjoyed by adults too. And while youngsters would glean (and retain) much historical knowledge from this adaptation, one suspects most of the highly appreciative Watermill audience probably did too!

Alasdair Buchan as author Ernst, Jess Mabel Jones, his friend Ilse and Richard Ede, his publisher Otto, were a lively trio bringing to life historical periods that included Roman domination under Julius Caesar, knightly chivalry in medieval England and the reason, tolerance and humanity of the Age of Enlightenment, Particularly impressive were the horsemanship (albeit using walking sticks) and swordplay in the scenes depicting the Crusades and the precision-like choreography illustrating the age of steam and the Industrial Revolution. Clever, funny and, let’s not forget, informative too.

But, of course, where there is comedy, there is also tragedy and the swift change from fun and laughter to the slaughter of the Great War was powerful and moving.

A Little History Of The World runs at The Watermill till July 25 then transfers to Reading Rep from July 29 to August 15.