With 2020’s Guy Fawkes celebrations sacrificed to restrictions and next November still far away, it may seem like a strange time to premiere a new musical based on the Gunpowder Plot. But we’ve been in lockdown for so long it’s hard to know what month it is and a Spring preview of Treason the Musical gives creators Ricky Allan and Kieran Lynn plenty of time to work on their next iteration for an autumn staging. Filmed as live and streamed from Cadogan Hall, this 50-minute concert staging certainly suggests a production with a lot of fantastic material and plenty of room to expand.
Musicals set in centuries past are surprisingly few and far between given the scope for flamboyant costume, stylised dance and dramatic stories. Two recent shows have not only caught the popular imagination but managed to bring history to life by giving it a contemporary resonance using musical style, tone and design with Six, based on the wives of Henry VIII, and of course Hamilton about a Founding Father of America, demonstrating how to create very human insights into famous stories.
Reaching back to the final days of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, through the accession of a new monarch whose failure to bring religious tolerance to England underlies the plot to eradicate the ruling class, and concluding with the round-up of the co-conspirators, Allan and Lynn’s musical covers a lot of ground. Framed by the grief of Thomas Percy’s widow Martha (Lucie Jones), Treason the Musical is told in flashback using a female perspective on a story that is, in the history books at least, exclusively male.
The action is also directed by a female Narrator who summarises large chunks of the story in rhyme that transport the viewer back and forth through time, outlines the growing contextual frustration that drives the Plotters, presents the characters while introducing and sometimes explaining their interior life. It is a useful structure, particularly in this Cadogan Hall try-out where digital viewers are guided through the sparsely-staged story and its numerous inter-locking plot points.
And there is much to admire in Allan and Lynn’s approach which eschews the character of Guido Fawkes – who does not appear at all – to focus on Thomas Percy in the first half and in the second on the driving force of Robert Catesby who instigated and coordinated the conspiracy (in this retelling). In doing so, Treason The Musical is also interested in the wider impact of religious persecution after Elizabeth I’s long rule, the quickly fractured hope of a new age and the sacrificial wishes of some of the individuals involved. 50-minutes is not quite long enough to explore and develop these themes sufficiently but the foundation of a bigger musical is clearly in place.
Allan has composed twelve consistent songs that draw on both traditional musical theatre and more historically-appropriate folk styles in the score to bridge the 400 year gap between the events relayed and the viewing audience. Together they make an atmospheric combination, one that is generally favourable and sympathetic to the schemers, offering psychological depth in places as well as a growing fervour of discontent as the events of 1605 accelerate. The opening number When Will I See You Again sung by Martha Percy reflects on mourning her husband Thomas, immediately reorientating a historical story that we think we know so well and suggesting the very personal and painful consequences for this women. It sets the tone for a show that is shaped both by the inevitability of its outcome (we all know how it ended) and our preconceived, distorted and disassociated socially manufactured understanding of the Gunpowder Plot.
Allan’s approach seeks to restore the everyday reality to this intrigue and the humanity of its proponents, exploring this in the more dramatic and insightful numbers given to the leads. Blind Faith, a duet for the Percys, for example examines the strain on their marriage, an obsessional number in which Martha descries losing her husband to the cause while Thomas explores his obsession with Robert Catesby, simultaneously sharing lyrics but speaking about quite different relationships. Similarly, Catesby’s first big number I’ve Got a Plot (that rhymes anarchy with monarchy) has a beating pulse that builds as he tries to inspire his gathered colleagues, suggesting both the danger of their meeting and the conviction required to instigate such a deadly action.
While the tone is largely quite serious, a single encounter with King James provides the show’s only true comic number when Thomas delivers a letter from the Earl of Northumberland to the Scottish King in 1603 acquiring promises of tolerance for Catholic subjects. It is a high point of the show, richly characterised by Daniel Boys in the role of the Stuart heir that plays with notions of James’s reputed sexuality as well as making him a spoiled, needy and demanding brat who addresses both Thomas and the audience quite differently while warming to the idea of his own beneficence should he inherit the English throne – there are notes of Hamilton‘s George III. James should really have a light Scottish accent but this is a character who demands at least another song if not several in an extended version of Treason the Musical.
The Narrator never sings but Allan and Lynn’s use of verse and rhyming couplets is another nod to the style of the era. When James ascends the throne and quickly fails to honour his promise of tolerance, the story escalates dramatically, mirrored in the pace of the Narrator’s speech which turns into rap and beat poetry, as Allan and Lynn again traverse the boundary between traditional verse and contemporary rhythms to add shape and variety to the different ways that information, plot developments and character insight are conveyed within the structure of the show.
The way we are taught to collectively remember history is event-driven, signified by key dates, simplified stories and moments of change or linear progress. So our modern impression of the Gunpowder Plot is shaped by our knowledge of its outcome and the associated annual celebrations that make the original events feel more like a cartoon strip than a dangerous sequence of activities involving people as real as we are. Allan and Lynn have taken a valuable character-based approach to the creation of Treason the Musical and while there is more development to be done here, there is a solid underpinning of complex and conflicting motivations across the characters they have chosen to follow that offer interesting and potentially affecting portraits of hazily understood individuals.
Primarily, Treason the Musical sees the events of 1603-5 from the perspective of Thomas Percy whose own fluctuating emotional state is the audience’s guide through the story. As an emissary from the Duke of Northumberland (an underused Cedric Neal) to King James, Thomas is optimistic that a new age of acceptance is about to dawn, revealed in the number All We Dreamed and More. The rapid decline of that fantasy draws him into the circle and thrall of Catesby where his dissastisfaction is transformed into murderous intent.
Treason the Musical is not quite there in fully articulating that journey but there are hints enough in this first draft for singer Bradley Jaden (After You and Les Miserables: The Staged Concert) to capture Thomas’s frustration and readiness to act. That he finds solace in Catesby’s charismatic company is clear and the score builds to a Les Miserables-like stridency that is often engrossing. In a longer runtime there is much more to Thomas’s character that could be explored; perhaps a duet with Catesby to compound the feelings of admiration, some post-Plot reflections on whether it was worth it or last thoughts about his wife and his own death. Thomas certainly deserves one or more solos to tell us more about his motivation.
Oliver Tompsett (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) as Robert Catesby is the Enjolras figure of Treason the Musical, quickly making his mark in the second half of the show with his blazing fervour for change in Got To Take Things Into Our Own Hands that leads quickly into the rabble rousing I’ve Got a Plot. It’s a great role for Tompsett who fills Robert with fire and certainty and, again, a longer production could explore his charm and impact on others in greater depth. Allan also gives Robert a fascinating piece of psychology with a backstory that uses the death of his wife to suggest his own desire for a speedy end. The haunting solo Cold, Hard Ground brilliantly implies that Robert Catesby was determined to die on one hill or another, and the Gunpowder Plot was a convenience – it is a really strong character point that offers plenty of scope for development in the future.
The remaining cast – though filled with great musical theatre talent – has far less to work with in their roles with Boys and Neal under-utilised as King James and the Earl of Northumberland, while the secondary cast including Rebecca LaChance, Waylon Jacobs, Emmanuel Kojo and Sharon Rose provide some beautiful harmonies and vocal support in representing the wider conspirators and their circle. Debris Stevenson doesn’t sing but as Narrator is key to welcoming and authoritatively guiding the audience through this story. Even with additional songs and an expanded life for some of the characters, the role of the Narrator in any future iteration is a crucial one, not least in offering a non-gendered role while underscoring the themes of storytelling, memory and inevitability that drive the action.
The Future of Treason the Musical
There is a huge amount here for Allan, Lynn and their creative team to be quite proud of and a future draft of the show can only build-on and expand the impressive material they already have in place. But there is still some work to do to really flesh-out the concepts the musical is exploring as well as envisaging what a staged performance might look like. Key to this is length and this first-look implies the show could feasibly double its runtime, dividing neatly into a Two Act structure that allows the creators to burrow a little deeper either into the build-up to the 5 November 1605 and the motivation of key individuals, or its aftermath where the writers could speculate on those last hours surrounded in Holbeche House.
Using the existing material, there are two possible options; the first would see Act One consider the context for religious dissatisfaction, why the broken promises of King James’s early reign took men to the point of no return and the pressures Thomas and Martha Percy experienced as Catholics forced to hide their faith, concluding at the point of putting the conspiracy into practice with I’ve Got a Plot – a good finale song. Act Two could then dramatise the days before and after 5 November which the current draft skips over, leaving the Narrator to slightly unsatisfactorily tell the audience about the main event.
Alternatively, leaving the familiar parts of the story to the audience’s already primed minds, the show could consider much of the existing material Act One but introduce a more reflective second where the men could muse on their decisions, the cause and what it means to so fatally fail. There are many examples in theatre and literature of such introspective moments, from the night before Agincourt in Henry V to the eve of the Somme in Birdsong and even in Les Miserables behind the barricade. In each, men quietly commune with their souls before facing the enemy one last time. A similar exploration of that moment of pause in the siege at Holbeche would add a new dimension to this story and the unfamiliar aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot where all we really teach is that the men were pursued, surrounded and savagely punished. This would add weight to Martha’s final contemplation of the personal cost to a newly-minted widow.
How the show would work in practice will help to clarify some of this, by thinking about the transitions between songs and if additional score or book is needed to facilitate changes of scene, perspective and mood. That this concert staging of Treason the Musical directed by Hannah Chissick leaves you wanting a little bit more is a good thing and testament to the exciting work that Allan and Lynn have produced here. What they have is a tantalising first draft that offers plenty of options for development, some strong character portraits and a platform for expansion. Most importantly, they have something new to say and by the time November comes around, Treason the Musical may be ready to explode.