fri 21/06/2024

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory

The definitive 'Assassins': Sondheim and Weidman's piece is a Menier masterpiece

Gun-slingers: Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Catherine Tate as Sara Jane MooreImages by Nobby Clark

Santa Claus does make it to the Menier Chocolate Factory this Christmas but his name is Sam Byck and he plans to fly a 747 into the White House and “incinerate Dick Nixon”.

So not the Christmas show, not in any traditional sense, actually not in any sense, but a hymn to the disenchanted and disenfranchised of America and in particular the infamous few for whom the Dream finally died when they exercised their right to bear arms and “moved their little finger” around the trigger. Hail to the Chief. Bang.

Stephen Sondheim’s bitterest, blackest, musical theatre piece Assassins was ground-breaking back in 1990 – not so much a play but a Revue, a cynical satire, with songs – but in Jamie Lloyd’s sensational new staging it feels newer, fresher, more relevant, and certainly more daring than it ever did. Such is the strength of the casting, too, that this brilliant ensemble – super sharp to the detail of every character – brings alive John Weidman’s witty and powerful book and make one realise just how fine it is. Sondheim has always acknowledged that “the play’s the thing” but for me the greatest revelation of this production is the extraordinary way in which Sondheim and Weidman enhance and honour each other’s skills. There isn’t a spare moment of dialogue, there isn’t a superfluous note in the score. It’s an astonishing symbiosis of words and music.

The state-sponsored executions are as graphic and disturbing as Lloyd can make them

We are spooked as soon as we enter the auditorium – a kind of fairground scrapyard where the remnants of fun-filled days and nights are offset by the uneasy feeling that we are being watched. You almost don’t notice them, the characters sitting silently like waxworks. This isn’t the London Dungeon, it’s the underbelly of the American Dream, the place where the dispossessed come to re-enact their “Hits” and “Misses” – the shooting range of American history. The metaphor is kind of obvious but it’s powerful, too, and when Simon Lipkin’s bloody “undead” Proprietor (pictured centre, bottom right) emerges from a giant clown’s head sporting an overcoat lined with America’s favourite “toys” – guns of every caliber – all bets are off. The physical brilliance of the staging is quickly established as these weird and wacky dreamers come back to haunt us, to once again claim their entitlement. “Where’s my prize?” Isn’t that what the Land of the Free preaches above all else – entitlement? One assassination blurs into another, each has a number redolent of period and style, and the most famous “miss” of all, Ronald Reagan, just keeps popping up for more.

Sondheim’s parodistic score is a cavalcade of Americana from the Balladeer’s banjo-led country ditties to John Hinckley and Lynette Fromme’s soppy, poppy, but oh, so catchy love song in praise of Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, and, most insidious of all, Charles Guitteau’s cakewalk to the gallows which Andy Nyman dispatches with ferocious energy up to and beyond the moment he chokes at the end of the noose. The state-sponsored executions are as graphic and disturbing as Lloyd can make them. Thou shalt not kill? And though the sentiments of the songs may be intentionally cheap they mean something to the people who espouse them. It is interesting, for instance, how Sondheim ennobles the beliefs of the original assassin John Wilkes Booth, he of Abraham Lincoln fame – a marvellous performance from Aaron Tveit – in the glorious “aria” section of “The Ballad of Booth”, and how “Another National Anthem” for those who have slipped through the cracks conveys both anger and fervour. And is there anything more teasingly seductive than the “Gun Song”? “And all you have to do is move your little finger...”

In the astonishing final scene of the play Jamie Parker’s pithy Balladeer becomes Lee Harvey Oswald and is confronted by his “pioneer” Booth. Electrifyingly, Sondheim now gets out of the way of the drama until the moment the shot rings out from the book depository and the band weighs in with what feels like the collective grief of all America. The tune is “Hail to the Chief” which Sondheim turns on its head to transform Sousa-esque pomp into lachrymose tragedy and Lloyd’s coup de theatre at this moment is heart-stopping.

I’m still not convinced that “Something Just Broke” works in the wake of the Kennedy assassination – it takes the focus away from our protagonists at precisely the moment they need to regroup for “Everybody’s Got the Right”. But in this, I would venture to say, definitive staging Assassins feels like a masterpiece. You leave feeling that in this genre Sondheim has shown us the way, but that somehow we’re still trying to get there.

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