DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Guy Fawkes – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: David Reed

Director: Gemma Fairlie

It was back in 2009 that director Gemma Fairlie first conceived the idea for a comic version of the Gunpowder Plot and four years later that she and writer David Reed first pitched it to York Theatre Royal. Apart from indicating the slowness of gestation in theatre, especially over the last two or three years, this suggests that it always was a good idea waiting to happen in these post-Blackadder days when Horrible Histories tours cross and re-cross the nation.

Guy Fawkes being a York native, sending him up too much was always impossible, so Reed hits on the idea of focusing on four conspirators (plus one wife of whom more later) and presenting them as foolish, vain, confused and generally not the sort of people you’d send for if you wanted to blow up Parliament. Guy then enters among them, rough, still with his York accent, hardened by his years in the Spanish wars, inured to the sufferings of war, and, though he’s involved in some silly goings on, he remains a basically heroic figure.

If you’re going to send up a period of history, it’s as well to get the details of setting and costume right. Carla Goodman’s costumes are perfectly period, with over-the-top excesses such as Martha Percy’s elaborate and immense dresses that make entering a room a hazardous experience. As for the sets, Act 1 uses a revolve to turn an inn room into an apartment at Percy’s house where Guy Fawkes is set to digging. Act 2, inevitably, is set among the gloomy arches of the cellar of the Houses of Parliament. Eamonn O’Dwyer’s music intensifies the effect.

Reed’s script is an entertaining mix of the historically true and the wildly absurd. For the opening meeting he actually chooses to have the same five conspirators present, with Kit Wright (a later recruit in reality) replacing his brother. Also present is his sister, Martha, now married to Thomas Percy. Yet they are very different from reality. Kit, historically the finest swordsman in England, is a gentle buffoon, endlessly confused, and – here’s the clever bit – both of them knew Guy Fawkes from York. The involvement of Guy with Martha is one reason for Percy’s non-historical hatred of Fawkes.

Reed and Fairlie choose their targets well and unexpectedly serious moments intrude: the execution of Margaret Clitherow in York, for instance, and the attempts to get the conspirators to abandon the plot – the reasons for the Monteagle letter, warning him of the danger of attending, are historically sound, even though the sender has changed.

Fairlie’s production occasionally lingers a bit on the fun, but gets richly characterised performances from all six actors. David Reed as Guy Fawkes is a swashbuckler with a vein of reality (listen to his speech on the effects of 36 barrels of gunpowder) while still being the victim of play-acting incompetents. Robin Simpson constantly seeks an air of command as Catesby, his early uncertainty about details swelling to gibbering terror by the end. Jamie Zubairi (Kit) and Andrew Pollard (Thomas Winter) are both very funny, one very stupid and desperately camp, the other hampered by the memory of killing Christopher Marlowe.

Then there are the Percies. Initially seen in all their finery on the way to the theatre, their accents impossible, their dress fanciful, they change scene by scene. Greg Haiste (Thomas) proceeds via silly horseplay and vain pursuit of past glories to out and out malevolence and Cassie Vallance (Martha) gradually loses her accent as she finds her lost love.

Runs until 12th November 2022.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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