I had high expectations walking into the Historic Royal Palace’s (HRP) newest immersive experience, the Gunpowder Plot, which is running in the vaults alongside the Tower of London.
The experience has a lot to live up to after the audio-led walk around the Lost Palace of Whitehall a few years ago, so cleverly done it would be hard to outdo. Each visitor was given headphones and a wooden block they were attached to, and the tour took the visitor around the site of the old palace with acted audio scenes from throughout history – from an Elizabethan wine cellar, through Charles I’s beheading, when the wooden block pulsed like his heart as he faced his death, right through the interwar years. It sounds unspectacular, but I can tell you it was spectacularly well done.
The Gunpowder Plot is entirely different. It knows it is spectacular, so has a confidence about it from the get-go that makes the visitor feel confident in return.
After a short tutorial about VR headsets and how to use them, our group of around 15 people was thrust into the year 1605 with the Thames on the old map of London in front of us turning into an LED fuse, a loud explosion and smoke. It made me jump, and sets the tone for what you’re about to witness.
As one might imagine, the Gunpowder Plot does exactly what it says on the tin – it tells the story of the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 during a period of Catholic persecution set about by the crown (James I) and his cabinet.
And though James looked kindly upon Catholics, as his mother Mary Queen of Scots had been one, his secretary of state Robert Cecil set up a nationwide network of spies and priest finders to eke away at those trying to uphold their faith. It was a nation in turmoil. A Protestant king with Catholic persuasion, but with Catholics being arrested, tortured and murdered in the name of the king. No wonder that Robert Catesby, the lead plotter, and his fellow Catholics decided they wanted to make a statement by blowing up the people who had inflicted such terrible persecution on their kind.
With that in mind, you are immediately transported into a prison cell in the Tower of London in 1605 with a persecuted Catholic, who tells of his misfortune and how hard life has been. “They try to change people’s minds by chopping off their heads,” he says, while screams from torture pervade from next door. His sister Anne visits to say goodbye, then he gets taken away for more torture.
Then the real plot begins, because what the HRP creative department and Layered Reality, the immersive theatre company, have cleverly interwoven, is that you, the visitors become co-plotters. We are Catholics, but we are roped in to spy for the crown.
Surrounded by a sophisticated high-definition LCD display in what feels like an underground banqueting hall, Lady Cecil explains that the crown has intercepted a letter saying there will be an explosion, but they don’t know which vault number under Parliament that the gunpowder is being stacked. Our job is to find out as we work as double agents under the guise of being Catholic.
From start to end, the theatrical scenes are well done, engaging and keep you on the edge, ready to be a bit scared. I would definitely rate this as 15 and older, and much too scary for little children, though you can buy tickets for 12 and upwards. If you have a faint heart as an adult, though, I would suggest steering well clear.
The reality of it all
There are three sections in which the visitor is given a VR headset, which can be a little fiddly to get in focus, so that is a slight downfall. Once it’s playing you don’t want to stick your hand up and miss a chunk, so that was a little annoying. But providing you can focus it, each one of these is fantastic.
The first one sees you taken on a terrifying ride on an old-fangled zip wire of rope far above the city with a struggling priest hurt from torture dangling in front of you as he wriggles and strains. It really is scary stuff.
Off with the VR and the struggling priest is in front of you. You must commence your plot with his help with vigour. You get to Anne’s (sister to the Catholic who was killed earlier) house and talk of the planned explosion ensues, but with many moral issues covered too.
Nothing is black and white, which is one of the strengths of this whole experience – converse opinions are conveyed at every point possible, so it’s not just about the crown or just about the plotters, it’s about both sides and all the normal people who might get hurt too.
Then priest hunters start banging at the door and we all have to hide behind wooden panels in Anne’s house. This is really frightening. You know it’s just audio and a bit of clever LED lighting under the door, but the effect is terrific. You survive and thankfully get a well-earned breather after that. Another actor takes you through to a tavern where you can buy drinks and snacks for 15 minutes.
Straight back in, you hop into a rowing boat with VR and are being rowed across the Thames from the Tower to the Houses of Parliament. The motion of the boat is fabulously believable and makes you feel as if you’re on the Thames, though when the ship you encounter sails off it does so a bit quickly and unrealistically. And I also noticed there were no splashes as the oars went in, but these are minor quibbles and don’t take away from the overall effect or story.
What does take away from it is when the rowing boat started flying over London, which reminds me of the ending to the film Grease when the car suddenly floats off. I found this peculiar, but I suppose artistic licence counts sometimes.
After floating off in the rowing boat, headsets off, into the next vault and it’s the culmination of the plot, which you see elapse around you from the wooden enclosure you’re placed in. A representative of the crown enters the chamber as Anne and John Johnson (aka Guido Fawkes) are about to light the fuse to the gunpowder. A fight ensues. Guido is arrested and taken away.
There are then three codas to the whole experience, one with Lady Cecil; the final VR section on the legacy of Guy Fawkes and the Thanksgiving Act that King James I passed to celebrate the survival of parliament on 5th November every year; and a potted history of all the people involved in the 1605 plot. It aptly ends on “Guy Fawkes, hero or villain?”
Having gone in with high expectations, I was bowled over by the amount of work, attention to detail and above all, a broadly historically accurate experience that is incredibly engaging, fun and really makes you think about life at that time. It does come at a price though, £40 for an adult.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in immersing yourself in a different time, surrounded by characters from this tumultuous period and trying to understand how we all might feel being put in that situation, then the Gunpowder Plot is worth every penny. As well as being truly memorable, just as the rhyme "Remember, Remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot," presupposes.