Tuesday, May 28

Treason The Musical – Festival Theatre

Ricky Allan’s Treason, The Musical ends on a poignant point – years after the event itself, we’re fixated on the burning of a man who never started the fire.

The story, in theory, is simple. Here is the Gunpowder plot, but like you’ve never seen it before. And, instead of focusing on the primary school stories of your youth where Guy Fawkes is caught red-handed and burnt at the stake, Treason focuses on the themes of persecution, scapegoating and secrecy to understand the motives behind the real plotters who took the Gunpowder plot from being a desperate last resort to a possible reality. Setting out the motivations behind the plot, the storyline follows Thomas Percy as he embroils himself in a group of plotters to take down parliament. At the same time, the figure of Guy Fawkes watches as the action unfolds.

Treason’s journey from page to stage is quite remarkable. From streamed concerts and sold-out performances at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, this musical has finally unleashed its world premiere in Edinburgh. This, given its connections to the plot as the one home of Mary Queen of Scots, mother of the Scottish King James, who would then go on to unite Scotland and England. Unfortunately, this brings around a resurgence of prejudice towards Catholics, prompting the curation of the Gunpowder plot. Indeed, Edinburgh makes for an interesting location for the production to start its tour.  

However, before the first musical number is out, one can’t help but feel the presence of another show looming over this production: Hamilton. And sadly, as the show progresses, this shadow only grows stronger. From the stylised movements of the chorus, who bring in set pieces by artistically throwing them over their heads in slow motion, the sparse wooden with overhead walkway through which characters perform to the stage below to the circular spotlight that lights up the stage in the second half, and the menacing slow-motion movement of the quill which bears far too much resemblance to Hamilton’s bullet. Surely, director Hannah Chissick knew this was all moving far too closely to a musical of this fame.

Treason’s stylised timeless modern costumes also nod to Hamilton, albeit a hundred years or so earlier. And sadly, this timeless modern approach hinders the plotline. Martha and Percy marry secretly before he goes off to meet with the King. But what right does Thomas Percy have to do that? His strong royal connections as a member of the landed gentry are entirely overlooked, and there’s no indication of his status due to the simplicity of his costume. Huge assumptions about the audience’s knowledge of the time lead to large plot holes. As the musical pans out, one asks, what is the artistic and musical merit of a musical about a series of clandestine meetings resulting in an event that isn’t correctly rendered on stage due to the limitations of the set?

Although there is much criticism to be made for its pilfering of Hamilton, Treason could have emphasised many key musical concepts too. The current compositions, despite supposed references to the period, are still very much rooted in the trappings of musical theatre, relying on pop harmonies and indie folk ballads to carry the story forward. It’s no bad thing and done with aplomb, but it also lacks the ingenuity of other musicals such as Six and Hamilton. But, there could have been more musical experimentation. After all, this period was known for its private devotional worship music, sung in secret gatherings with long, heart-wrenching passages with little resolution. While the libretto captures this, the score does not. 

Let’s make it clear: The musical serves up an extremely impressive cast, and the performances on stage are absolutely worth the ticket price. Nicole Raquel Dennis has made Martha Percy her own, igniting ballads throughout the musical journey. Meanwhile, Sam Ferriday, starring as Thomas Percy, is a formidable lead, delivering striking vocals and commanding stage presence. Notably, ‘All We Dreamed’ and More stands out as the stella number, providing stunning harmonies and allowing these two lead characters to demonstrate the depths of the onstage chemistry they’ve curated. Joe McFadden gives a consummate performance as torn king, James I of England. Sadly, talent as strong as this can’t overcome some particularly clunky dialogue, including a poorly inserted reference to England and Scotland being better together, that made the audience audibly groan. And Gabriel Akamo gives a chilling performance as the underused Guy Fawkes.

By the end of the show, it’s a little unclear what the message is. Indeed, as in the 1600s, unstable governments conquer and divide, making scapegoats of the innocent to mask their ineptitude. The accidental implication that we, too, should go off and detonate parliament feels uneasy in a 21st-century democratic Britain, as corrupt as our current government may seem.

Reviewer: Melissa Jones

Reviewed: 26th October 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.