This lavish new immersive theatre attraction from the Tower of London is, in essence, a 100-minute theme-park ride. Using live acting and pre-recorded VR, it takes you inside the infamous Gunpowder Plot, wherein a group of Catholic radicals – inflamed by King James I’s persecution of their religion – decided to blow the heck out of the Houses of Parliament.
London has experienced a proliferation of this sort of big-budget, overtly commercial immersive theatre in recent times: next month we’re getting a big new ‘Peaky Blinders’ show, and ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ is the sister production to the similarly VR-augmented ‘War of the Worlds’ that’s been doing the business in central London for a few years now.
What marks the ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ out as special is its superior creative team, headed by writer Danny Robins (‘The Battersea Poltergeist’, ‘2:22 - A Ghost Story’) and director Hannah Price (of the King’s Head and activist company Theatre Uncut.
Its greatest strength as a drama is the careful moral ambiguity Robins’s script applies to the England of 1605, riven by conflict between the oppressive Protestant ruling class and the persecuted Catholic minority. We sympathise with the oppressed. But is detonating the Palace of Westminster and its bustling surroundings the answer?
Although actually staged in the vaults just outside the Tower of London, the story begins in a recreation of the Tower, where the groups of up to 16 ticketholders are cast as newly imprisoned Catholics, witness to the cruel torments visited on their kindred.
Soon we’re caught up in an elaborate espionage operation, and the story asks us to decide whether to side with the clearly horribly treated Catholics and the radical terrorist group spearheaded by Guy Fawkes, or infiltrate said group with the aim of dobbing them in to the authorities in order to prevent them killing hundreds of people.
Naturally, as a good Polish Catholic, I went for blowing up central London, and with only a little persuading the rest of my group agreed. It was somewhat disappointing that (spoiler alert) you can’t actually make this an outcome of the story: ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ is one of those immersive shows that offers the illusion of choice but you’re pretty much locked into a set course, no more able to influence the final outcome than you would be at a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride.
Still, I suppose it would be a weird complaint to say ‘I want my money back because I wasn’t allowed to commit the greatest terrorist atrocity in the history of London’, and Robins’s smart script exercises enough empathy towards the persecuted Catholics to give vent to the sense of conflict most audience members are liable to feel about the situation.
It’s also a lot of fun – convincing live actors and slick, impressive sets are broken up by three headset-based virtual reality sequences. I guess your expectations of VR may determine how impressed you are at these, but I thought they were a hoot. In the first, we zipwire out of the Tower and over the streets of London and the Thames. It’s preposterous, of course, but camply thrilling, with glorious 360-degree panoramas of the London of 400 years ago (we also learn at the end that that there genuinely was a zipwire escape from the Tower, albeit a lot smaller). Later on, we get in a virtual boat with Fawkes, as played with hammy intensity by a pre-recorded version of Draco Malfoy himself, aka actor Tom Felton. The sequences absolutely look like you’re in a slightly glitchy video game of maybe 15 years ago. But they’re a good laugh, a note of escapist adventure that peps up the more brooding live action.
I have some mixed feelings. It is ultimately a piece of commercial entertainment aimed at tourists, and simply not in the same league as Punchdrunk’s vastly more ambitious new show ‘The Burnt City’. And I’d feel much happier recommending this sort of thing if the prices were slashed in half. But there’s no denying that as an example of what it is, ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ is streets ahead of its London peers like ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Doctor Who: Time Fracture’ and ‘The War of the Worlds’. It engages with its source material with genuine intelligence and care – it’s not just a glorified cosplay sesh. It’s conceivable that one day soon London will play host to more megabucks immersive shows than it does musicals, and on that score ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ has set the new gold standard.