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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Assassins
Menier Chocolate Facotry  Winter 2014-2015

'The failed work of great artists can be more interesting than the successful work of minor artists. Discuss.' 

I think that's really the only way one can talk about this dark 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. 

Assassins is a mess in too many ways – conceptual, structural, musical – for it to work. But it is by Sondheim and Weidman, which means that there is going to be something there worth looking at, worth trying new productions and approaches to bring out. 

Jamie Lloyd's production illuminates things about the show I had never seen in it before, makes sense out of sequences that had never worked before, and contains some very strong performances. If the show is still a mess, it is considerably less so than ever before. 

Assassins tells the stories of nine people who killed or attempted to kill Presidents of the United States. It opens, naturally enough, with John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln, shot) and climaxes with Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy, shot). 

In between, and not in chronological order, we see such disparate figures as Charles Guiteau (Garfield, shot) and Samuel Byck (Nixon, plane into White House never took off). 

Something (not especially original) is being said about the America that generates these assassins every twenty years or so – that the country that promises that anyone can grow up to be President, and lies, will occasionally find someone who decides to do the next best thing. 

Weidman sets the musical in a hellish funfair where the assassins cross time and space to interact, building toward a climax where they will urge the hesitant Oswald on because his is The Big One that will somehow vindicate and give shape and meaning to their stories (No, I don't follow that logic either). 

Along the way the various stories are told in seemingly random order and different musical and dramatic styles, but director Jamie Lloyd is more successful than any previous production in giving the whole a stylistic unity that goes some way toward holding it together. 

For the first time ever, I sense that Sondheim was reaching here toward opera of a sort, as he did in Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures (both of which are echoed musically in Assassins' score). 

The role of the sometimes ironically commenting balladeer is stronger and clearer, and the deliberate irony of playing the Guiteau sequence as a jolly minstrel show is somewhat toned down so the stylistic clash isn't as jarring. 

The non-musical scenes in which Byck shows the ordinary frustrations of a powerless little man moving inexorably into madness are chilling, and although the characterisations of Squeaky Fromme (Ford, gun jammed) and Sara Jane Moore (Ford, shot but missed) as total airheads of differing types are almost certainly inaccurate, they are funny. 

The moment in this production in which music, characterisations and drama come together most successfully (and which didn't work in any version I saw before) is when John Hinckley (Reagan, shot and wounded) and Fromme share a lovely and chilling song of devotion, he to a photo of Jodie Foster, she to one of Charles Manson.

(Something I thought I could credit Lloyd with, an inventive and evocative solution to the problem that Oswald doesn't appear until the final scene, turns out to be borrowed from a Broadway production, though other directors have missed it.) 

Mike McShane is strong as Byck, Catherine Tate funny as Moore, and Carly Bawden appropriately eerie as Fromme, while the country twang Jamie Parker brings to the Balladeer's songs goes a long way toward giving the show a unifying American sound. 

Assassins remains a deeply flawed work. But if there is something that works there, we've come a lot closer than ever before to finding it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Assassins - Menier 2014   

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