Assassins continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 7 March 2015.
Don’t bet against Assassins following Merrily We Roll Along, the last Sondheim musical the Menier staged, into the West End as it’s a humdinger of a show, hard to stomach at times, but never less than fascinating – a stunning ensemble piece brilliantly directed by Jamie Lloyd.
A harder sell than Merrily maybe and a musical that’s easier to admire than to love, it is about as good as it gets. This trawl through the dark history of presidential assassinations and would-be assassinations, with music to match each era – Sousa marches, show tunes, pop ballads – has surely never been done more imaginatively.
Having all those disenchanted, attention-seeking nutters, from John Wilkes Booth in 1865 to John Hinckley in 1981, interacting with each other on stage takes a bit of getting used to, but once you have accepted the premise of John Weidman’s clever book, it all falls into place.
And it pulls no punches. The electrocution of Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to bump off Franklin D Roosevelt but got the mayor instead, and the hanging of total weirdo Charles Guiteau, who fatally wounded President Garfield for not appointing him ambassador to France, leave nothing to the imagination.
Like Merrily, it was a flop Off-Broadway but 1990 was bang in the middle of the Gulf War, America was in a very patriotic mood, and a gun-culture musical about their murderers and deadbeats was never going to be flavour of the month.
It ran for only 73 performances and no longer when it came to the Donmar a year later, and although there have been Fringe revivals in London, at the Landor and Union, it never again attained West End status. But this revival has definite chances, even if it might be too American for British tastes.
While all these mentally unstable characters are a familiar part of American folklore to those across the Atlantic, their names, apart from John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln, and Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marxist who gunned down JFK, are mysteries to most of us over here.
So if you are an Assassins virgin (or even if you are not), it can be hard to follow. Not so much, though, in Lloyd’s aggressive production which works on practically every level, genuinely scary although now and again too loud for the space.
Set designer Soutra Gilmour’s atmospheric fairground with a dodgem car on one side and a giant upturned clown on the other (though unidentifiable if you’re sitting on the ‘wrong’ side of the traverse as I was) is a wonder and Chris Bailey’s choreography works a treat.
As for the music, the Carpenters-style pop song ‘Unworthy of Your Love’ which Sondheim wrote for sad-sack John Hinckley, unhealthily obsessed with child actress Jodie Foster before ending up in a mental hospital (still there) for taking a potshot at Reagan in 1981, is as sweet as ever, and ‘Everybody’s Got the Right (to their dreams)’, the ensemble piece that bookends the no-interval show, is as naggingly hummable as ever.
But, for my money, it is not one of Sondheim’s best scores although ‘The Gun Song’ and ‘Something Just Broke’ (an add-in for the Kennedy segment of the first London Assassins, as requested by director Sam Mendes) are admired by many and MD Alan Williams’ eight-strong orchestra does them proud.
It’s not all grim: comedienne and actress Catherine Tate, as an airheaded Sara Jane Moore who shoots her dog by mistake while practising for Gerald Ford, gets plenty of laughs in her double-act with Charles Manson cult follower Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden, outstanding), who also wants Ford dead to make Manson fancy her more.
But this is a superbly-chosen cast with American Aaron Tveit terrific as Booth and Mike McShane’s Sam Byck, the insane outsider in a Santa Claus outfit who hires a plane to ram the White House and knock Nixon off his perch, an object lesson in not going over-the-top when it would have been so easy to do so.
David Roberts, as the exploited Polish immigrant Czolgosz who finds the American dream doesn’t stretch to him, sings and acts beautifully, while Andy Nyman (as the self-deluding Guiteau), Jamie Parker (The Balladeer/Oswald), Simon Lipkin (Proprietor), Stewart Clarke (Zangara), Harry Morrison (Hinckley) and Melle Stewart (a fine Emma Goldman) are all bang on the money.
You certainly won’t get maximum enjoyment unless you research it before you go but full marks to the Menier for an informative programme that helps tremendously. They put many West End theatres to shame with everything they do, there is always a buzz, the staff are lovely, and it is always a pleasure to go there.
For the record, four US Presidents, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy, have been assassinated and there have been at least 15 failed attempts. The last came nine years ago during a George W Bush speech in Tbilisi. In Britain, with its much longer history, only one Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval way back in 1812, has been bumped off. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Carley Bawden and Simon Lipkin on Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory