Copycat Hamiltons are everywhere. Lin-Manuel Miranda led the way by turning an unexamined corner of history into a smash-hit show. The latest antique subject to become a musical is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The script, by Ricky Allan and Kieran Lynn, ought to include those words in the title because they give vital data about the location, the historical period and some elements of the story. It’s a priceless asset. But they’ve tossed it aside and plumped instead for the vague, unsuggestive ‘Treason’. The best-known figure in the conspiracy, Guy Fawkes, gets a mention — as ‘Gwee-dough Forks’ — but doesn’t feature as a character. Another puzzling decision. Writers of musicals should locate the story’s best features and build on them. To discard them carelessly is bizarre and foolhardy.
The show opens with some aridly tragic warbling between a plotter called Thomas and his tearful wife, Martha. Thomas’s surname happens to be Percy and, sure enough, he receives ‘no mercy’. The authors won’t win many prizes for writing that lyric, nor for their attempts to conjure up the last days of Elizabeth I in timeless verse. ‘She is old and desperately frail/ The bells, the bells are ringing, and soon will come her last exhale.’
The show improves massively when Oliver Tompsett arrives as the dashing Robert Catesby who leads the revolt and stirs the sluggish plotters to action. These scenes are remarkably similar to the opening sections of Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s no harm in borrowing bits and bobs from classic shows but it carries certain risks: viewers can see exactly what you’re doing and they’re unlikely to judge your effort superior to the original. The 55-minute recording of Treasonwas staged as a concert performance. It needs development and some ruthless editing by an experienced producer. There’s the kernel of a good show here.
More copycat antics from Giles Terera. The fabulously talented musician and composer is a keen student of Marcus Rashford who last year crowned himself king of kiddie malnutrition by forcing the government to give meals to deprived schoolchildren. An interesting move. And it leaves plenty of other political controversies available to be annexed by the astute opportunist. Terera, who performs in a long-running West End musical, was unable to work during the pandemic so he sat in his Soho apartment and wrote an album of songs for victims of racial prejudice and other avoidable evils. What a delightful way to pass the summer if you can afford to live in one of Europe’s costliest postcodes. He recorded the show at a Piccadilly bar and called it Black Matterto acknowledge his debt to the BLM brand. One of the first songs is a critique of nightclub bouncers who operate an informal apartheid policy. ‘Why can’t we come in?/ Your ID has the wrong colour skin,’ sings Terera. He’s a skilful musician but a rather less talented lyricist. His rage about the Grenfell disaster collapses into foul-mouthed banality. ‘The people in power/Don’t give a fuck about Grenfell Tower’ And he’s too ready to fall for the easiest rhyme in the English language. ‘We’ll never learn from history-ee-eee/ Till every one of us is free-ee-eee’.
Terera has spotted that protest anthems such as ‘We Shall Overcome’ or ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ are maddeningly unspecific. So when he turns to the subject of poor maintenance in the subsidised housing sector, (admittedly, a tough theme for a pop melodist), he adds architectural details: ‘There are some flats/ They have some stairs/ The lift is broken/ But nobody cares.’ The chorus, if you want to sing along, is a stroke of genius: ‘Even the rainbows don’t go there.’
He uses his time at the keyboard to reminisce about street life in Soho. One afternoon he saw a drunken white woman fling a glass of wine at two black males for no reason. After ‘20 seconds’, he says, police sirens were heard and ‘three meat wagons arrived’. Terera watched in horror as ‘25 policemen descended on these two brothers… they were on the ground to the point where I couldn’t see them’. It seems odd that this huge scrummage in the middle of London received so little attention in the media.
Terera also likes to deliver moral instructions from his piano stool, like a nightclub Moses. ‘How we treat black women in our industry needs to change,’ he says, vaguely. But is this true? Quite a few actresses of colour — including Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey (who began her career in films) — seem to be doing all right. And if black women need help, why is Terera hogging the mike? He should spread some opportunity by hiring a black female chorus or arranging a duet with an undiscovered teenage soprano. These, of course, are silly suggestions. So is the sight of a wealthy musician trying to monetise the Labour manifesto.
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