24th January, 2015, matinee
Menier Chocolate Factory
Assassins has been top of my 'to-see Sondheim' list for a while now and this production really does not disappoint. On stepping into the auditorium through the garish clown entrance the atmosphere is all-encompassingly creepy and Jamie Parker's banjo playing sets an eerily melancholy tone.
Rejecting the limitations of classic plot structured musicals, Assassins works as an overview of Western political failings and a sharp criticism of the American Dream through a series of interconnected vignettes. Faultless staging and direction from Jamie Lloyd, choreography by Chris Bailey, and committed performances from the whole ensemble means that the slight issues one might have with the – admittedly scattergun - structure of the piece are silenced. Sympathy, humour, tragedy and horror are all produced simultaneously to dizzying effect, and by the closing reprise of ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’ the tension is overwhelming as the assassins set their sights (and weapons) on the audience.
The purgatorial setting of an abandoned fairground heightens the sense of displacement and loss while also representing the assassins within the realm of the misfit communities of classic American travelling carnivals. Soutra Gilmour’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting captures the razzmatazz of the fair - a canopy of tangled lights and bright flashing ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs - which secretes the seedy corruption of both the killers and the systems they wish to annihilate. This concept leads to a thrilling climax as Lee Harvey Oswald takes aim and with an earth-shattering eruption the auditorium is illuminated and a cascade of red confetti smothers the stage representing the blood of the nation and a sense of the death of America itself.
Sondheim's score cleverly adopts and satirises classic American music genres from the wistful harmonies of the barbershop quartet to cheesy 70’s pop ballads to an ingenious piece of self-referential intertextuality in the use of Sondheim and Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story. My only slight issue concerns the presence of ‘Something Just Broke’ – an additional number incorporated into the 1992 London premier, and remaining controversial within fan communities – I somewhat agree that the presence of the song, focussing on American citizens and their reactions in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK, detracts from the focus of the show – the assassins themselves – and dampens any uneasy feelings of sympathy the audience feels for the disenfranchised group.
The entire cast works together brilliantly, vital in what is a truly ensemble piece. Catherine Tate is well cast as dippy frustrated housewife Sara Jane Moore, making the most of the comedic moments and proving capable in her few songs. Also particularly impressive are Simon Lipkin as the versatile Proprietor, holding the show together impeccably, Aaron Tviet, exuding charisma as John Wilkes Booth, and Jamie Parker in dual roles, skilfully transforming from his country bumpkin take on the Balladeer to the desperate frustration of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mike McShane also has ample opportunity to shine as Samuel Byck, relishing the juiciest monologues of John Weidman’s book.
The Menier has succeeded in staging a near-faultless production of one of Sondheim’s more divisive pieces; the powerful visuals linger, and the critique of American, and by extension Western, politics and culture and the seemingly inevitable disillusionment that many citizens experience ensures that audiences are invited to meditate further on these themes long after the curtain call.
Assassins plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March 2015