Festival Theatre, Chichester
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Polly Findlay
Only on for a ridiculously short two-week run, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a beautifully engineered weapon, which in the hands of Polly Findlay and her company of marksmen delivers a rifle-shot straight to the heart of American culture and politics. An all-American treat, Assassins is as scathing of American hypocrisies as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is of the corrupt British elite.
A wickedly satirical look at the individuals who, throughout history, have taken a (sometimes fatal) shot at their President, Sondheim’s depiction of these assassins / would-be assassins is as brutal as their own intentions, with all featuring on the spectrum of social inadequacy. The show’s genius however lies in the bravado of Sondheim’s lyrical wit that, applied to John Weidman’s book and under Findlay’s direction of a stellar cast, delivers some of the finest performances in musical theatre to be found this year.
The audience in Chichester’s Festival Theatre are pumped before the show even begins. Lizzie Clachan’s designs see the Festival’s thrust stage transformed into a TV studio cum Oval Office, with patriotic American drapes festooning the auditorium. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ plays as the popcorn-bearing (yes, Chichester are selling popcorn for this one) throng take their seats. And in what must surely be another first for this august theatrical venue, mise-en-scene cheerleaders whip the crowd into frenzied Mexican waves anticipating kick-off. Big screens countdown the seconds before Peter Forbes as The Proprietor takes the stage, getting proceedings underway with Everybody’s Got The Right.
Forbes is magnificently Trumpian in his style – and while his take on the role is a masterful trompe l’oeil, it shows a partisan interpretation from Findlay that skews Sondheim’s otherwise unbiased critique of the American machine. Trump may well be a great visual in terms of razzamatazz and bombast – but Findlay’s omission of any suggested reference to the current senile and absent-minded White House incumbent, that may have offered some balance, belies her personal politics.
Danny Mac heads the list of the show’s gunmen and women, playing Abraham Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth. Mac’s take on the role is assured and defined, taking Sondheim’s wry interpretation of his character and giving it a fabulously nuanced interpretation. Booth’s interaction with Lee Harvey Oswald (Samuel Thomas) in the Texas School Book Depository, telling the nervous, hesitant and self-doubting Oswald that by shooting JFK his place in history will be assured is a dramatic masterpiece. The exchanges between these two in the number November 22nd 1963 demands flawless performance skills and with fine ensemble work in support, the song lands with pinpoint accuracy.
Carly Mercedes Dyer again shows her excellence as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme an acolyte of Charles Manson with a plan to shoot Gerald Ford. Everything that Dyer does is outstanding and it can only be a matter of time before she is cast to headline a major musical. Nick Holder chills as Samuel Byck, the wannabe loser who believes his problems will be solved by assassinating Richard Nixon. Byck is offered no solo songs, just monologues, with Holder nailing the complex role. Jack Shalloo is equally strong as John Hinckley, the Jodie Foster-obsessed loser, out to shoot Ronald Reagan.
Sondheim’s score is another beauty. Jo Cichonska conducts her band, all finely decked out in Americana and seated in a circular pit that lines the front of the stage, with a stylish aplomb. Their take on these inspired melodies is unlikely to be bettered.
This glorious production merits a transfer to a London stage. Whether there is a mainstream British appetite for such a deeply cynical view of the USA is, of course, a different matter.
Until then, head to Chichester – for outstanding musical theatre, Assassins is unmissable.
Runs until 24th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson