Updated: Jul 15, 2022
After the relentless hounding of Catholics in 16th century England under Elizabeth I who reigned for 45 years...
...her successor King James I ascended the throne in 1603. He wasted no time in demonstrating that anyone who hoped he would be sympathetic to the Catholics owing to his own part-Catholic descent was sorely mistaken. The Gunpowder Plot, an immersive theatrical experience set in a custom-built venue at Tower Hill Vaults - a stone's throw from the Tower of London itself - is set in 1605, when a group of Catholic rebels led by Guy Fawkes plots to blow up the Parliament.
For £40 pp, the bee and her companion human arrived at the venue on a Friday evening and were joined by a handful of other guests (max of 16 per performance). We are led through an exceptionally well-designed series of tunnels and chambers over the next 2.5 hours. Rustic lanterns and medieval fireplaces illuminate the set, and the air is scented with the damp, musty fragrance of an underground dungeon - a commendable level of attention to detail.
Led into what looks like a war room for a quick preamble, we are told that we’re Catholic prisoners in the England of King James I, who was notorious for persecuting Catholics.
We are then led into a prison chamber where we meet our fellow prisoner William, a Catholic with the resigned air of a man who has seen too much of the atrocities against his kind to be outraged anymore. With calm acceptance, he lights up a pipe and enquires after some of our names while we hear the spine-chilling screams of a man being tortured in the distance. As William himself is then escorted away by a guard to the torture chamber, we are led to believe it will be our turn next, and the bee is biting its nails in anxious anticipation of what horrific forms of torture it may see in the coming few minutes.
But we are not to be granted a view of what could have been a horrifying and hair-raising exposure to medieval torture (to the bee's slight disappointment).
Instead we are rescued by a bloke who identifies himself as Thomas, who shepherds us from one room to the next, waiting patiently for the coast to clear before each move, while we hear in the distance the thumping footsteps and shouts of guards as they search the prison for the escaped prisoners, i.e. us. Unfortunately, the scene does not elicit even an iota of nervousness, let alone the adrenaline rush of fleeing for your life, despite the highly realistic look and feel of the set. The giggling of the audience contrasts with the terror on Thomas’ face, and the audience’s slow pace as we clumsily amble about unfamiliar territory looks rather comical against Thomas’ quick step and great sense of urgency.
Thomas’ hushed whispers asking us to hurry along are not even clear to the bee, who at one point felt it was pertinent to ask Thomas who he was, only to be told curtly that he was…Thomas. Thomas who? Guess we weren’t meant to find out just yet.
Anyway, Thomas leads us to his boss, Lady Cecil, who works for the crown, and who promptly and rather pompously recruits us as spies for the crown. We are to foil Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the Parliament, we are told (naturally, dissent and you are going to be sent right back into prison, to your death. It may have been interesting to see what the actors really would have done had someone in the audience refused to comply). Cecil's monologue is rather artificial and overdramatic, as though she was trying a little too hard (in futility) to sound formidable.
Cecil and Thomas tell us of a code language that the plotters are supposedly using and give us a deciphering manual to help us decode those secret messages, should we encounter any during our journey. How annoying.
But to the bee’s annoyance, Cecil and Thomas even get us to decipher a sample message - easy enough to do in a minute or two, (maybe an extra minute for squinting your eyes to read in the dimly lit room) but utterly pointless as we don’t encounter any coded message to decipher for the remainder of the show (nor do we carry the decipher cheat sheet with us - it is simply abandoned as we are carted off to the next room).
We are then led to the first of three VR sequences - perhaps the best part of the experience. We witness beautifully rendered 360-degree views of the London of 1605 - a remarkable achievement. I guess your rating of the VR experience would depend on your prior expectations about what VR is like. The bee was experiencing it for the first time and couldn’t help but marvel at how far the technology of our times had come. One of the bee’s human companions even said that the experience felt real enough that when we virtually traveled on a ropeway over the river, looking down at the river from the height gave them a slight vertigo.
The VR experience wasn’t without a few glitches, though.
Somewhere around the middle of the sequence, a small chunk (about 3-5 seconds) of the video repeated twice consecutively; a glitch of this kind should have been ironed out long before opening night. The video starts playing as soon as you place the headset on, but the bee wishes they’d allowed a few seconds for us to adjust the fit. The bee spent a whole minute trying to adjust its headset to fit its tiny head at the start of the second VR sequence, missing most of Guy Fawkes’ dialogue with it in that minute. No matter - the story was plodding along at such a slow pace that missing a minute here and there was not of great consequence.
The performance hits another little snag soon after. We are in a room with Catholic rebel Anne and a Catholic priest. As priest-hunters try to break in to catch and kill the priest, Anne rushes to hide us in pairs in hidden doors along the walls. The bee and the companion bee are ushered into what feels like a broom-cupboard sized room that’s pitch-black (not at all recommended for those with even the mildest claustrophobia) and no door handle on the inside, and we wait there patiently as we hear the hunters come in and take the priest away. Unfortunately this scene fails to create much tension or anticipation, even though we hear Anne scream and beg for the priest to be spared, we hear one of hunters shouting to his companions to check whether the walls are hollow, and we hear a bit of knocking here and there (but no attempt is made to open our door).
And now for my favourite bit of the evening...
The hunters eventually leave, and Anne finally lets us all out. Not all of us though - the bee and its accompanying human were forgotten. The bee hears Anne talking to the other guests and wonder if it’s part of the plot for some of the guests to remain hidden for a little longer, but when we hear the party almost leave for the next room, the bee knocks with a meek ‘hello?’. To Anne’s credit, she remains in character, saying ‘oh, is anyone still in here?’ as she goes from door to door to figure out which one we were behind. The bee knocks again to help her out. The rest of the party bursts out laughing as they realise we had been forgotten inside, and we laugh too as we come out, injecting unnecessary and detrimental comic effect into what was clearly intended to be a tragic scene.
This tragedy was intended to serve as exhibit B in a dilemma that would be posed to us at the interval - do we want to remain spies for the crown, or do we want to join the plotters?
Exhibit A is a visual of the destruction of hundreds of innocent civilians and their homes, including a hapless mother who loses her laughing, playing child in the debris - a flavour of what the plot would unleash if allowed to go through. Exhibit B is the outrageous capture and murder of the Catholic priest, a kind-hearted fellow you couldn’t help but sympathise with. And there's William, the prisoner we met in the beginning - we soon learn he has been executed as well, like countless other Catholic dissidents. And so we have to make a choice at this point - continue as spies for the crown to foil the plot, or join the plotters.
Except that it did not feel like a dilemma at all...
...because neither of the two tragedies had really left their imprint on the bee’s heart. It just wasn’t theatre at its best; it didn’t move, it didn’t evoke emotion. As we were asked to ponder in the interval which side we wanted to be on (not that this was of any consequence for the remainder of the show), the audience unanimously decided to switch sides and be plotters, and the bee just went with the groupthink.
The second VR sequence takes you on a boat ride through a waterway with a virtual Guy Fawkes, compellingly played by Tom Felton sitting across from you.
This was less realistic-feeling than the first sequence. We were seated on real boats before we wore our headsets and the bee expected to feel a gentle ebb and flow of the boat as it moved across the water, but the boat was entirely stationary. If the VR experience was supposed to mimic the gentle rocking of the boat as it floated along, it didn’t do it for the bee. And then, bizarrely, the boat flies over the waterway, oars and all, and we are shown a bird’s eye view of London as Fawkes talks about his grand vision. It is not clear to the bee why this boat ride was required and what it adds to what we already know. Other than giving us a nice close-up glimpse of the man behind it all, it didn’t do much for the bee.
In all, the bee liked the novelty of the VR experience and did learn a bit about the history of the real Gunpowder Plot, but thought that the immersive format of the show failed to evoke the intended emotion from the audience.
It fooled no one into thinking they were really there, in the thick of the action, and in fact depressed the anticipation and nail-biting because as an audience member participating in the plot, you just know you won't ever get captured and killed, no matter how much the actors try to convince you that the danger is real.
We leave the show with the famous rhyme ringing in our heads:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November Gunpowder, treason and plot I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot
Watched 10 June 2022 at Tower Vaults, Tower Hill.