The first live performance of the musical based around the iconic events of The Gunpowder Plot shows great promise, but is far from complete
Remember, remember, the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
It’s a story that has entranced primary school children for centuries. The culmination of years of religious oppression, The Gunpowder Plot could have entirely altered British History as we currently know it. Never has a revolutionary act in England come so very close to fruition. As one of the most famous elements of English history, it is short wonder that it would eventually become fuel for a musical – not least when the likes of Les Miserables and Hamilton similarly deal with tales of overcoming adversity from the oppressive ruling classes.
Indeed, this precisely what Ricky Allan (Music, Book & Lyrics) thought, drawn towards telling previously untold stories buried within commonly believed history. Through telling the story of The Gunpowder Plot for Treason, Allan, along with Kieran Lynn (Book & Lyrics) does not fall into the trap of overly simplifying history. Though Guy Fawkes is undoubtedly the face of the Gunpowder Plot as the public know it, he rightfully plays a very small part in overall proceedings, the audience’s anchor instead being Thomas Percy (Bradley Jaden) and his wife Martha (Carrie Hope Fletcher).
From here, they present a tale of extremism amidst a bitterly divided country, in which one is presented with the choice of either suppressing one’s beliefs or fighting on behalf of them. When presented like this, it is easy to see why Robert Catesby (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) and his fellow plotters considered themselves to be heroes and liberators: after all, it’s the way that a great deal many epic, emotive and inspirational stories have been told of revolutions or overcoming adversity when they succeed.
Treason The Musical is by no means finished, however. Nor does it pretend to be. Originally starting its life as a series of digital releases of songs starting from November 2020, Treason later progressed to a live-streamed concert from Cadogan Hall in March 2021. After just two workshops, Treason The Musical in Concert stands as the latest and last in London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s summer series of concerts at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, following previous August concerts Chess and Kinky Boots. It is certainly a brave and unique way of debuting to a live audience, and the creatives involved should be applauded for their courage. In many ways it is a fantastic, assured unveiling, though much finessing is required before it is ready for a full stage production.
In many ways, Treason succeeds in presenting the audience with a novel way of considering The Gunpowder Plot. Indeed, its portrayal of Thomas Percy is doubtless the most sympathetic yet. By painting King James (Daniel Boys) in shades of villainy, motivated more by money than he is by the need to keep his promises, Percy’s sense of betrayal at King James not making moves to create a more permissive society for Catholics gives him decent motivation to ally himself with Robert Catesby and his team of revolutionaries. Having said this, all of the characters within Treason could do with substantially more fleshing out to make character arcs and the full dramatic potential of the historical period sing.
Carrie Hope Fletcher is captivating as Martha Percy, delivering some of the best songs in the show while she powerlessly watches her husband’s descent. Her haunting “When Will I See You Again?” nicely bookends the show. Duets “Blind Faith” and “No Happy Ending” truly demonstrate Fletcher and Jaden‘s incredibly chemistry and believability as a married couple, though the true jaw dropping moment comes with “The Inevitable”, in which Martha laments Thomas’s choices with a brilliantly soaring vocal and stunningly epic orchestration.
One inclusion that’s particularly jarring and a clear point of comparison with Hamilton is the portrayal of King James I of England, here shown as especially exuberant and camp, in much the same vein as King George III. Though I may not be a historical expert, King James was born in Scotland, was raised in Scotland, was the King of Scotland, spoke “Scots” and was almost 40 by the time that he became King of England. Historically, in fact, Thomas Percy later described himself unsure exactly of what King James had said to him because of his strange way of speaking English. I do not find it terribly much of a stretch, therefore, to believe that King James had a Scottish accent and not, in fact, the dreadfully affected English one.
What’s more, as one of a handful of British monarchs to have well documented cases leading us to believe that he was at least bisexual if not homosexual, I am uncertain as to his portrayal here as generally effeminate and what’s more spends an entire musical number trying to have sex with Thomas Percy. It’s certainly a cause for amusement, but merely makes King James easy fodder as a villain, and I thought that society had perhaps progressed past queer coding their villains – but this one isn’t even subtle. He’s a villain and also he wants to have sex with men. So that’s abundantly, alarmingly uncomfortable messaging for us to unpack at a later time. Much like many of the other characters, King James could easily have benefitted from far more nuance than is afforded to them here.
On the topic of historical accuracy, Treason majorly downplays Thomas’s agency as a primary instigator of the plot itself. Percy’s anger at King James is historically documented, with him alighting at Robert Catesby’s residence mere months after James took the throne to assert that he wished to kill James himself, before being persuaded to join the plot. Also missing from the narrative is the fact that Percy got a job as one of the King’s bodyguards (they really need a more thorough vetting process), which allowed his relocation to London. The musical also makes it seem as if Percy was just magically gifted a chamber underneath the House of Lords instead of him actively seeking it, which is widely thought to have been the case. Thomas should be the beating heart of the narrative: an ordinary man pushed to do unspeakable things because of the immense pressure and prejudice they are facing, yet the show does not adequately capitalise on that conflict.
One polarising part of the production is certain to be the presence of Debris Stevenson as a modern narrator, using urban poetry to comment upon the past events. This really soars in moments when it has a searing point. For example, the commentary on the role of women within history, as being largely invisible and merely standing around talking about the choices that men make is massively resonant. However, her presence within the narrative as it currently stands feels like an awkward conflict of competing tones. Should this be kept as part of the show, then the entire piece needs to revolve around that as a hook and, should that be used as a hook, there needs to be a clearer sense within the narrative of how these events reflect the present day.
The following section featuring the female members of the cast, “Caught in the Crossfire” capitalises upon a historical grey spot but creates a worrying assumption on the part of the audience, which may lead many to assume that it was the wives of the plotters who were ultimately responsible for the failure of the plot. From a historical perspective, the actual writer of the so-called “Monteagle letter” is truly unknown, though is widely believed to be Francis Tresham, the brother-in-law of Lord Monteagle, who is entirely absent from this narrative. While an interesting thought, this warrants further exploration within the narrative as it certainly affects Martha’s character journey after that point, if the audience are to believe that she actively sabotages her husband’s plot, especially since the story doesn’t give her dreadfully much motivation to do this in the first place.
There are also some logically unclear points, such as how Thomas Percy magically teleports from London to Northumberland to have an argument with Martha, before then teleporting back to London to flee to the Midlands to ultimately get shot. Not that the show was especially clear about where it was that anybody was. It took most of the first act to discover that Martha and Thomas weren’t in fact in London, and that’s only because Martha seemed particularly upset that Thomas was going there. There are many plot points that are currently getting lost as they are being delivered in the thick of song. Character’s entire identities are questionable, both in their role to the story as well as their role in the country. One almost wishes that there could be more in the way of connecting scenes, as delightful as the songs are.
These are not surprising difficulties. After all, this is in effect a workshopping of a musical – something which usually audiences are not privy to, and the story is in need of ironing out, to make the character arcs more cohesive. Right now it feels as if there is no clear focal point. There are lots of ideas, but it’s unclear which of those are the main ones. It feels as if Martha gets a disproportionate amount of song time compared to her actual character development, for example. Is this a show about extremism? About ordinary people being led to do extreme acts because of circumstance? Is it a show about those who are left behind? The ones who stand by their loved ones while they go on that journey? Is it about the legacy that it leaves? Is it that violence begets violence? Right now that is uncertain, but any of those ideas could be equally compelling.
Despite these issues with the book, where Treason clearly shines is on the strength of its music. After all, that’s what has got Treason to the stage that it currently is: debuting in perhaps the most high profile way of any new musical. The melodies are catchy and genuinely entrancing and the orchestrations (by Matthew Malone and Simon Nathan) are propulsive, epic and cinematic. While this lends certain moments dramatic momentum, this is contrasted by a captivating stillness that similarly engage the audience. All of the songs were performed spectacularly by the entire cast.
Having said that, some songs did end somewhat abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere, while there were a number of songs that followed the same structure of building to an intense climax before reducing to a quiet, emotional reutterance of the core lyric before the final chord. It’s a solid song structure, but when used a handful of times within the same act, it then feels formulaic. The presence of Les Dennis‘ “Paperwork” is also a song that is crying out for an early cut (especially considering the score is already 31 strong). It is a charming enough way to deliver exposition, but not nearly enough work is done to lend depth to Robert Cecil in order for the audience to actually care about the difficulty that paperwork poses on an advisor.
It is clear that Treason has incredible potential. The story of the Gunpowder Plot is inherently dramatic and one can easily imagine how spectacular it could be on stage. There are clearly lots of competing creative ideas that are still being worked through, what with Ricky Allan, Kieran Lynn, Debris Stevenson and Hannah Chissick all having input on the book. Almost all of the music seems to be in place. There are musical numbers for all of the key parts of the story (though a stronger finale is needed), there just needs to be a clearer sense of narrative thrust and what the story is really crying out for are scenes. Though there were small moments of dialogue (uttered in slightly jarring couplets), it felt as if emotions were being limited by the need to deliver these lines within the constraints of timing with the songs and the need to rhyme made all of these characters feel less real and relatable.
Having said that, Treason has had a fantastic journey to this stage of its development and, should the creatives take this opportunity to regroup and be willing to make wholesale changes to the material that they have, it has the potential to be a truly phenomenal musical offering.
For more information on Treason The Musical and its continuing development, visit https://treasonthemusical.com/