The Gunpowder Plot goes grime – Treason the Musical in Concert review – The Guardian

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
This absorbing take on Guy Fawkes’s plan to blow up parliament has striking resonances to today’s world, as well as a starry cast knocking out sensational songs
This musical draws us back to the events of 5 November 1605 when that most famed and infamous act of treason was foiled. Refreshingly it is not an overfamiliar, theme park version of the Gunpowder Plot and Guido – or Guy – Fawkes has little more than a walk-on part. The concert, with music and lyrics by Ricky Allan and Kieran Lynn, was first digitally released in 2021 and now bursts into life with its fresh take on a well-known slice of British history.
Directed by Hannah Chissick, the story of co-conspirator Thomas Percy (Bradley Jaden) takes centre stage. We follow his disenchantment over the persecution of Catholics during the reign of King James, into extremism under the guidance of Robert Catesby (Simon Anthony-Rhoden), who leads the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Alongside is Martha Percy (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and this is her story too – of how Thomas’s pull towards violent protest and hate leaves her alienated and morally compromised.
It combines contemporary and period elements with mixed results but the production shines iridescent in its music: there are strong tunes and exceptional performances. The starry cast almost uniformly bring voices that hold the auditorium rapt. Hope Fletcher is perhaps the strongest with songs such as Blind Faith, a duet with Jaden, No Happy Ending and Caught in the Crossfire (sung with a group of women). She is especially moving in the folksy numbers with a voice that is pure, clear, almost angelic. The music brings drama and suspense while lyrics draw out the subjectivity of the plotters and, importantly, the women who witness their radicalisation. Its questions around protest and how men are led into violence in the name of faith feel very relevant today.
The story comes with a framing device of a contemporary narrator, in the glorious form of grime poet Debris Stevenson who raps alongside the Tudor twangs and folksy ballads. At her best she is a force as fierce as the flames that lap on a back-screen but she is hamstrung by too much simple exposition, although in a few instances her energy and fizzing poetry hold us breathless.
The modern and period mix does not come together smoothly enough and in its concept it looks like an imperfect version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton or Jamie Lloyd’s radical reworking of Cyrano de Bergerac. But there is an effective rip-off of Hamilton’s monarch in King James (Daniel Boys) who is a delight to watch: whimsical, imperious, with an edge of John Malkovich-style menace. He is drawn with great dollops of contemptuous satire, with songs such as the excellently jazzy As Far As I Can Tell.
Les Dennis, as his adviser Robert Cecil, does not work nearly as well as a comic foil. His character does not have enough to do, his singing is less charming than lacking and his part seems redundant, as does the cheesy back-screen of projections that shows closeups of a wedding ring which looks like a jewellery display from a shopping channel, along with abstract closeups of petals and trees.
Never mind because the singing outweighs the weaknesses and the boldness is to be commended. This show is trying to do things differently and if its parts do not entirely gel, it absolutely rocks as a concert.
At Theatre Royal Drury Lane, until 23 August.