“Treason the Musical” presents a promising theatrical experience with the potential to burn brightly. However, it also faces some areas where it falls short of its ambitious goals. With a new take on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, this musical promises a unique and thought-provoking theatrical experience, yet it leaves the audience with mixed feelings.
“Treason the Musical” presents a fresh and intriguing take on the historically significant Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a pivotal moment in British history. What sets this musical apart is its unique narrative perspective. Instead of focusing on the plot’s well-known central character, Guy Fawkes, the musical places him in an omnipresent narrator role, rarely interacting with the unfolding events. The spotlight, instead, falls on Thomas and Martha Percy, offering a deeper exploration of their relationship and the gradual spiral of Thomas into the dark world of the plotters, led by Robert Catesby. This innovative approach gives the audience a fresh angle on a familiar story, emphasising the human drama and complex relationships that underlie this historical event.
The concept of “Treason” is not just about historical accuracy, but also about the power of storytelling. By delving into the personal lives and motivations of the characters involved in the Gunpowder Plot, the musical humanises an event that is often viewed through the lens of political intrigue. The show’s creators aim to create a more intimate connection between the audience and the characters, highlighting the emotional and psychological complexities of their choices. This concept invites the audience to re-evaluate their understanding of historical events and the people behind them, ultimately adding depth and dimension to a well-known tale. “Treason the Musical” is a testament to the enduring appeal of historical narratives when approached from a fresh and imaginative perspective.
One of the strengths of “Treason” lies in its musicality. The production features a blend of dynamite melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, which often succeed in leaving a lasting impact. The compositions, infused with stunning original folk and pop songs, manage to captivate the audience with their tunes. However, the lyrical aspect could use some fine-tuning. While the music is engaging, some of the lyrics lack the poeticism to truly elevate the emotional resonance of the narrative. At times, the rhymes come across as forced or overly simplistic, leaving the audience with the feeling that the lyrics are more semantic than pragmatic.
In terms of performances, Nicole Raquel Dennis and Sam Ferriday, portraying Martha Percy and Thomas Percy, are notable standouts. Their vocal and acting prowess shine brightly, but they also face some limitations imposed by the script. The characters are not adequately foregrounded at the beginning of the show, making it challenging for the audience to form a natural connection to them as individuals and as a couple. A more robust introduction could have enriched their characters and allowed for a deeper investment from the audience.
Anne Vaux, portrayed by Emilie Louise Israel, deserves special mention for her exceptional vocals. Her performance adds depth to the show, and her powerful voice undoubtedly leaves an impact. In addition, Robert Cecil, brought to life by Oscar Conlon-Morrey, is a small role with significant impact with his impressive characterisation. Furthermore, his nuanced comedy choices, while in a limited role, are noteworthy and provide moments of laughter and engagement.
The ensemble cast, comprised of Femi Akinfolarin, Filippo Coffano, Megan Curley, Elena Gyasi, Naomi Katiyo, Louis Makrodt, and Dan Gill, work tirelessly to maintain the show’s energy and dynamic. They play an integral role in the production’s overall success, whether through their dance performances, harmonious support, or immersive background presence. Each ensemble member contributes to the show’s appeal, and their dedication is evident in every scene and number.
The narrative approach of using Guy Fawkes (Gabriel Akamo) as an omnipresent narrator is a bold and intriguing choice. However, this approach creates a unique challenge. Fawkes narrates but does not directly participate in the action, creating a sense of disconnection. As the narrative progresses, it heavily relies on Fawkes, and the show concludes with him addressing the audience. Unfortunately, this stylistic narrative choice falls short in providing clarity, especially during crucial plot points. This leaves the audience feeling like they may have missed essential elements of the story due to a lack of coherence in Fawkes’s narrative interjections. If the show seeks to move away from a Fawkes-heavy narrative, it throws into question why it seems so set on foregrounding his character.
The character of King James, played by Joe McFadden, feels underdeveloped and written without a clear angle. This character has undergone significant changes, and the previous, more camp and playful portrayal provided a richer character with more room for exploration. The song ‘The Promise’ has been cut from the show entirely and rewritten to remove the clear personality of the character. The shift in character development leaves the supposedly iconoclastic King James with limited opportunities for engagement.
The creative team, including choreographer Taylor Walker, has succeeded in delivering outstanding dance choreography. The ensemble executes the choreography with precision, ensuring the dance sequences are slick, consistent, effective, challenging, and purposeful. The direction by Hannah Chissick, however, falls short in building up tension and allowing the audience to sit with the characters and their plight for long enough. The talented ensemble, while remarkable in their dance performances, occasionally feels underutilised for storytelling and narrative development, detracting from the overall experience. In addition, there is room for improvement in varying the staging of ballad numbers to add more diversity to the presentation.
The technical aspects, such as the set design by Philip Witcomb, prove to be effective and versatile. There are moments when the set might feel too open, missing opportunities to create tension and claustrophobia, which could have enhanced the atmosphere. The set features an excellent prop boat, adding a layer of authenticity to the production. Lighting design by Jason Taylor complements the set well, and the sound design, overseen by Tom Marshall, enhances the overall slickness of the production. Should the show return for another iteration, it may be pertinent to include projection as a way of enhancing this, such as placemaking.
The plot of “Treason” assumes a certain level of existing knowledge, which can be a hindrance for those less familiar with the historical event. The Gunpower Plot is reduced to a brief section in Act 2, leaving some audience members without a complete understanding of the historical context and the events leading to the conclusion.
In conclusion, “Treason the Musical” is an engaging and enjoyable evening out that offers a unique perspective on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. While it has moments of brilliance, there is room for refinement and improvement in various aspects, particularly in character development, plot clarity, and the execution of the unique narrative style. The potential for the musical’s future success is undeniable, and with some work and adjustments, it could become a must-see in British theatre. It’s a production that holds promise and, with further development, may spark a bright future.
Treason the Musical plays at the Sheffield Lyceum until 4th November 2023 where it will continue its tour to London. More information available here.
Photography by Danny Kaan