Guy Fawkes

David Reed
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

Jamie Zubairi, David Reed, Robin Simpson, Greg Haiste and Andrew Pollard in Guy Fawkes Credit: Sam Taylor
David Reed and Cassie Vallance in Guy Fawkes Credit: Sam Taylor
Andrew Pollard, Jamie Zubairi and Greg Haiste in Guy Fawkes Credit: Sam Taylor

Writer-performer David Reed is best known as a member of The Penny Dreadfuls, a comedy trio who for over a decade have been producing historically-tinged radio specials. In these, well-known guest performers, such as Sylvester McCoy, Richard E Grant, or Robert Webb, join the regular cast to present humorous takes on some of the most famous narratives in the Western canon, from Richard III to The Odyssey.

The first of these, way back in 2009, was the story of Guy Fawkes. Now, after a long gestation (and a further lockdown-based delay), the stage adaptation of the story has made it to the main house of the York Theatre Royal, directed by Gemma Fairlie.

An impressively detailed set, designed by Carla Goodman, brings us into the back room of the Duck and Drake pub, where Robert Catesby (Robin Simpson) and Kit Wright (Jamie Zubairi) are awaiting the arrival of their co-conspirators. These are a motley bunch, and the script swiftly pens in their various quirks and internecine quibbles, efficiently establishing the four men as long-standing friends united by more than just their Catholicism and their desire to take down the Protestant King James.

Here, Thomas Percy (Greg Haiste) is a waspish, flashy snob who fancies himself as the hero of the movement. Thomas Winter (Andrew Pollard) is a softly spoken would-be actor, more interested in the social aspect of concocting plans with the lads than with taking urgent action. Kit Wright is shown as a simple-minded posh boy, his costume (and Zubairi’s performance) part Buttons, part Tweedledum.

Catesby tries, often vainly, to corral the others into order and establish his authority as the head of the organisation. Robin Simpson, a regular of various York stages from whom I don’t remember seeing a bad performance, gives another excellent turn, eking out the comedy as Catesby’s frustrations mount.

The first scene, then, establishes this gang, as well as Percy’s wife Martha (Cassie Vallance). Entering sideways due to a ridiculously wide hoop skirt, Martha is another character which drifts towards pantomime—though thankfully the belittling jokes of her husband ultimately get a (not altogether unforeseeable) payoff.

Finally, into the pub steps the dashing Guy Fawkes, played here by the writer, David Reed. Fawkes drives the conspiracy towards extreme action, and whips the others into some sort of shape through his quiet, intense presence and legendary military record fighting with the Spanish.

All the performances are compelling, wringing the most out of the script’s humour. But something struck me as not quite in balance. While some scenes, jokes, and characters (not to mention costumes) suggest a pantomimic exaggeration, at other times we’re asked suddenly to engage earnestly with the motivations, interwoven passions and traumas of these characters. This left the play seeming uncertain of itself, and I found the tone uneven.

While radio drama can tell a compact story, incorporating flashback, soundscape, and narration fluidly, here the tale feels over-expanded. For one thing, it runs at over double the length of the equivalent radio play. Significant changes and adaptations have of course been made in order to fit the story to the medium; Reed’s debut stage play is to all intents and purposes an almost entirely new piece of work. Unfortunately, this expansiveness means that, after the strong opening, several scenes meander rather than pushing forward, and while the dialogue is well-crafted and excellently performed, too much of it feels like a series of detours. (The end of the first half basically tells us that the conspirators’ time so far has been wasted, which makes it feel sort of like ours has too.)

The ghost of Blackadder lingers close to Reed’s writing—it is, indeed, cited as a reference point in the programme note. But the script can’t match that show’s verbal fireworks (pardon the pun), and only occasionally seems really to be aiming in that direction. Moreover, several of the jokes rely on thin tropes about campness, punning on ‘coming out of the closet’, and the like—old panto staples which have surely largely been (or should be) put out to pasture by now. And the more dramatic moments hinge on convoluted stage trickery with props and other effects, with at least two supposedly climactic moments undermined by apparently misfiring gimmicks.

This all risks sounding more damning than it should; the play is broadly amusing and often intriguing (despite the fact that most of the audience will know how it all ends). The performances, design and direction are all commendable. But I left yearning for a tighter edit, and for the show, ultimately, to find a more even tone and to head more surefootedly in either a comic or dramatic direction—as the best of The Penny Dreadfuls’ radio comedies tend to do.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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