The brief descriptor of Treason the Musical as “a historic tale of division, religious persecution, and brutality” reads like a modern-day newspaper headline. In fact it’s the seasonal story of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to bring down King James I (VI of Scotland) and his government.
It’s impossible not to make comparisons with the struggles our own times
The show raises many issues, not overtly, but by association and similarity, that it’s impossible not to make comparisons with the struggles our own times and indeed other periods and events throughout history; conflicts that have involved social class, religious division and political disagreements. As the mind wanders there’s often the needs to pinch oneself, return to the story in hand and remember that this is a musical to be enjoyed.
In many places that is not difficult, but for much of the show it more problematic, as in most of Act 1. Treason is certainly in the air throughout, but the details of the notorious plot and the passion that surely motivated the traitors lacks focus in a storyline that is concerned with too many other tangential issues. It was an exciting period, still dominated by religion and politics and with the death of Queen Elizabeth the country was positioned at the beginning of a new era. Catholics were hopeful of greater religious freedom and the end of persecution, given that the Scottish monarch’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a catholic. James, however had been educated by Presbyterians and lent support to Puritanism and although he has assured he Earl of Northumberland that he was not inclined towards persecution, that proved not to be the case. He wanted a smooth transition of power, rather than a radical departure from the policies of his predecessor, so little changed.
The fear in which catholics lived is depicted in the rather drawn-out story of the necessarily secret marriage of Thomas Percy (Sam Ferriday) to Martha Wright (Nicole Raquel Dennis).
In a work replete with scantily drawn characters Wright, who at first seems much like another one of them comes, into her own after the interval, as we see her distress and anguish poured out to her friend Anne Vaux (Emilie Louise Israel). Wright and Israel between them have moments of operatic splendour and finally we witness some depth of emotion and character.
Joe McFadden’s King James has some entertaining moments and he clearly relishes watching the masque play put on for his coronation, for which the musical style suddenly changes and we are left wondering which Gilbert and Sullivan operetta inspired it. Otherwise, he seems unclear as to whether he is the strict ruler or lighthearted playboy kept on track by his Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, played with a hint of comedy by Oscar Conlan-Murray, who deploys his powerful bass/baritone voice with assertion.
As for those involved in devising and failing to successfully execute the Plot, they hastily come together to get things under way in Act 2, but as characters carry little weight. Popping up in various locations and having his say, Guy Fawkes (Gabriel Akamo), rather than being a central character, assumes the role of a detached observer, often narrating in rhyming couplets. Akamo belts out some numbers, is loud and often difficult to follow. Taken together, this begs the question as to the need for Fawkes to be in the show at all. That in turn highlights the extent to which the book by Charli Eglinton with Kieran Lynn is unfocussed.
Philip Whitcomb’s suitably gloomy set takes advantage of the stage’s size and benefits from imaginative lighting by Jason Taylor. Musically, Ricky Allan’s score has some life in it, but unmemorable.
The spectacular setting of Alexandra Palace could have been home to a gripping period musical, combining intrigue and drama, but it’s not. There’s a certain buzz to seeing Treason at the time, but that fades upon reflection, as the muddled goings-on cloud the memory, leaving little behind.