Sunday 28 December 2014

Assassins - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Carly Bawden and Catherine Tate

It is a thrilling, chilling intimacy that infuses the Menier's production of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's compelling work that unfolds via the back stories of those who have taken a pot-shot at America's Presidents down the years. The audience enters a traverse space through the sinister open jaws of an oversized clown, with Soutra Gilmour's inspired design placing this show's prescribed fairground setting in a decayed theme park. Video-gamers will find more than a hint of Batman's Arkham City amidst the grotesque paraphernalia - and that's even before setting eyes on Simon Lipkin's Joker-esque Proprietor.

There is as much history as there is entertainment in this show. Broadway import Aaron Tveit is the first of the shooters, playing John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's Confederate murderer. Booth was committed to opposing the abolition of slavery that Lincoln championed and proves to be one of the musical's few assassins who is drawn to kill purely in pursuit of a political even if reprehensible political motive. There is little that's crazy in Tveit's sensitive portrayal of a man who sees Lincoln destroying his nation and whilst many of the other assassins are executed, Booth's suicide as his captors close in, evokes a surprising pathos from the American actor.

Aside from the Proprietor, Sondheim's key narrative thread comes from Jamie Parker’s guitar-strumming Balladeer. Amidst moments of brilliant irony, Parker achieves a subtle blend of satire and tragedy as he weaves his way through the show's haphazard chronology, his final transformation, from everyman to Lee Harvey Oswald, is one of Sondheim's most chilling creative concepts.

The power of this show lies in its construction as an ensemble piece and Jamie Lloyd has assembled a world class company to portray this clutch of infamous inadequates. Catherine Tate cleverly underplays her comic genius as Sarah Jane Moore who was to have a pop at Gerald Ford, whilst in a separate bid to kill Ford, Carly Bawden's Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme offers up another carefully crafted slice of ditzy 1970's Americana.

Rising star Stewart Clarke electrifies (literally) as F.D.Roosevelt's would be killer Giuseppe Zangara. Clarke's last Latino turn was as Pirelli in NYMT's Sweeney Todd and this young actor's Italian job has to be seen to be believed. Andy Nyman offers a perfectly nuanced nebbish as immigrant Charles Guiteau who shot Garfield in 1881. Nyman's disturbingly hilarious reprise of The Ballad of Guiteau, complete with jazz hands as his character's corpse swings from the gallows (great stagecraft from Freedom Flying) must rank as one of the most ghoulish moments in the canon.

Canadian Mike McShane is perfectly placed as the oft forgotten Samuel Byck, a middle-aged unemployed salesman who plotted to fly a 747 into Nixon's White House. Lumbering on stage in a Santa suit and in a role that credits him with no sung solos but rather rambling monologues, McShane leads the company in Assassins' most portrayal number, Another National Anthem. (And if McShane is one day cast as Willy Loman, remember that you read it here first)

Lipkin is an assured force throughout - and as each President is in turn shot at, he dons a paper target on head, back or torso, inviting gunmen to take aim. His is a performance (that also includes his acclaimed puppetry skills), that like the show itself, is as exciting as it is thought provoking. With no interval, Assassins proves to be a relentless roller-coaster ride. The most famous assassination of them all, that of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, sees the Menier's stage flooded in crimson petals, mimicking the famously televised bloody horror that the world witnessed in November 1963. 

As one of London's visionary directors and a creative force who consistently brings a perceptive flair, often sprinkled with just a hint of carnage, there was an inevitability that Jamie Lloyd would want to tackle this troubling show. His execution is flawless, ably supported by musical director Alan Williams' interpretation of Sondheim's complex melodies.

Sold out until March, this show is a work of genius that deserves a wider audience. A West End transfer may yet be a possibility, but nothing will match the cockpit-like intensity achieved in this versatile venue. The finale's ensemble of the assassins, guns aimed at the audience and all singing Everybody's Got The Right will, to quote Sondheim, stay with me for a long time.

Runs until 7th March 2015

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