Saturday, 29 November 2014

Everybody's got the right to their dreams

Hey, pal - feelin' blue?
Don't know what to do?
Hey, pal - I mean you -
Yeah. C'mere and kill a President.

No job? Cupboard bare?
One room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don't despair -
You wanna shoot a President?
C'mon and shoot a President...

Got the right
To be happy.
Don't stay mad,
Life's not as bad
As it seems.

If you keep your
Goal in sight,
You can climb to
Any height.
Got the right
To their dreams...

Judging by the way the show has been promoted to the press in advance, one might have been forgiven for thinking that Assassins was a star vehicle for the "national treasure" Catherine Tate. Of course, that is far from the truth, as we found out for ourselves when Al, John-John, Madame Arcati and I went along to one of our favourite theatres in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory on Thursday to see Jamie Lloyd's new production of Mr Stephen Sondheim's most - ahem - unusually themed musical.

For who else but Mr Sondheim would dare to create an entire musical about the imagined interplay between a group of people with nothing else in common but the fact that they had killed or attempted to kill the President of the United States?

This is an eerie enough construct to imagine - for in the classic music theatrical genre, there should normally be at least one character with whom one feels some empathy, surely? But that is the magic of Sondheim, of course. He has us rooting for a psychopath in Sweeney Todd, for a witch in Into The Woods, and for Ethel Merman's mother-from-Hell in Gypsy, after all. And in Assassins, each of the characters, deeply and truly mad as all of them are, has a little something in their character with which we can identify.

This achievement relies as heavily upon the skills of its ensemble cast as it does the writing, of course - and this cast is utterly superb! Two main characters hold the whole thing together, as we are introduced to each disturbed assassin in turn: The Proprietor (a deliciously mad, ever-goading, impressively demonic Simon Lipkin) and the Balladeer (the superbly confident Jamie Parker), and it is through their own interplay that we, the audience, are encouraged to understand (or if it were a panto, "boo", "hiss" or "cheer"; we did none of that, of course - this is Sondheim) what drove seemingly anonymous individuals to want to become assassins.

I think thereby hangs a tale - that word "anonymous". For in most cases, these people drove themselves to wield their fateful guns as a way to gain recognition/notoriety, to ensure they were not ignored or forgotten in history. This was certainly the case for John Wilkes Booth (the fabulous singer and elegantly handsome Aaron Tveit), whose murder of Abraham Lincoln was the first Presidential assassination, and the most earth-shattering, till the 20th century.

Lesser-known madmen followed in his wake - the would-be radical and downtrodden Polish-American Leon Czolgosz (a grandly dramatic David Roberts), who killed President McKinley; the pain-wracked and obsessive Giuseppe Zangara (sung and acted marvellously by the cute Stewart Clarke), who attempted to assassinate Roosevelt; and the hilariously loony Charles Guiteau (film star Andy Nyman), who killed President Garfield. It was the latter performance by Mr Nyman, skipping, dancing and convincingly delusional (adherent of several bizarre pseudo-religious cults, he petitioned the White House believing himself perfect for the role of Ambassador to France), that brought the finest snatches of comedic relief to the potentially very dark proceedings.

The more recent crop of killers included the totally unhinged Samuel Byck (the ever-wonderful Mike McShane), whose outrageous plan to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House to kill Richard Nixon was only balanced in its sheer oddness by the fact that Byck kept leaving voicemail messages outlining his plans for, of all people, Leonard Bernstein. In a shining moment of the production - and there were many! - the odd and lisping loner John Hinckley (played to perfection by by Harry Morrison), the attempted assassin of President Ronald Reagan, duets with Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (a very scary Carly Bawden), one of the two women who tried to kill President Gerald Ford (the other being Miss Tate's character Sara Jane Moore) about their obsessive (unrequited) love for Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively. Unworthy of Your Love is perhaps the most memorable of the show's songs, and they did it beautifully.

The denouement, of course, comes with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald (also played by "Balladeer" Jamie Parker) - the one assassin whose actions still resonate today, more than half-a-century later, and the final ensemble number, where all the killers pay Oswald their respects, waving their weapons menacingly in a dance macabre.

There are flaws, of course - not least Miss Tate's wobbly West Virginia accent; but we know she's a comedienne (accurately, and skilfully) playing a woman who was the object more of ridicule than of fear, so it didn't jar for me as much as it might for a purist. Some parts of the set and the sound-effects were a little wobbly too, but this was only a preview, so allowances must be made...

With its malevolent Circus/fairground set, and the fact it is staged "in traverse" (with the seating blocks either side and the performance in-between; our seats were right in the front row - in the midst of the action), we in the audience were spooked even before the show started. But at every turning point in the unfolding stories, to have actual guns pointed in one's face at regular intervals is utterly spine-tingling!

In all, this was a magnificent production, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is no wonder it is selling out rapidly...

As the press night has not even taken place yet, there is no video footage from the Menier. However, as a little taster of the music, here's the cast of the 2004 Broadway production of Assassins at the Tony Awards:

In the words of one reviewer: "It’s madness, but it works."

Assassins is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March 2015.


  1. watched this years ago.
    all i recall is mario cantone.
    i should watch it again.

    1. Not sure the DVD would have the same atmosphere as seeing it live. Jx

  2. It was an amazing show...and the review I read in the Metro was 5 stars. The most excellent birthday treat. Thank you to you both xxxx

    1. You are more than welcome, dear - it was a fab show, wasn't it? Jx


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