Last Updated on 2nd December 2014
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre
In his book, “Look, I Made A Hat“, Stephen Sondheim says:
I’ve often been asked to name my favourite show among the ones I’ve written music and lyrics for and, like most authors, my reply has been the standard one: I have different favourites, each for a different reason. But if I was asked to name the show that comes closest to my expectations for it, the answer would be Assassins….(which) has only one moment I’d like to improve…Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the show is perfect. Immodest that may sound, but I’m ready to argue it with anybody.”
Now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, is Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Assassins (book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) a production which is likely to provide Mr Sondheim with a long line of potential proponents of the flaws of the work. But, if it does, in truth, they will be proponents of their quibbles with Lloyd’s production rather than the work itself.
Assassins is a remarkable piece of theatre. It’s a kind of musical revue featuring various types of music reminiscent of tunes popular in the various eras depicted and successful and unsuccessful assassins of various office-holders of the Presidency of the United States of America. It ranges across history, moving backward and forward in time, imagining the lives, motivations and regrets of those who would/did end a Presidency, from the first successful assassin, John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln, to the man whose shots rang across the world when he killed John F Kennedy (Lee Harvey Oswald) and beyond. It imagines long dead assassins still having an effect on, interacting with, confused, angry and potentially violent loners.
It’s a very political piece of musical theatre and it looks, harshly and determinedly, at the kind of place that breeds assassins and the effects their work has on those left behind. It deals with many forms of oppression and conformity and shines a light into the world of the downtrodden, the not-listened-to, the ones who wish to be heard. In these modern days of global terrorism, Assassins has more relevance than ever, especially as society grows more and more disheartened by its political leaders.
Although it is an intensely American piece, it was an Englishman, Sam Mendes, who made a significant, but divisive, contribution to Assassins. When directing the first London production, Mendes asked for an additional song, which Sondheim duly provided; one that would be about the effect Kennedy’s assassination had on every-day American folk. Something Just Broke is the song and some American critics dismissed it as an ill-conceived attempt to inject “warmth” into the piece. Sondheim argues that Mendes was correct, that the song is “not only necessary, it is essential”.
If I were to argue with Mr Sondheim about the perfection of his musical, it would be about that song. Although I see why it is necessary, its position in the score seems wrong. Assassins reaches its spectacular climax in Another American Anthem and, once Oswald pulls the trigger, the natural momentum of the work plunge into the superb finale, the reprise of Everybody’s Got The Right. Something Just Broke gets in the way of that natural momentum; it creates an enforced consideration of how one action can affect, devastate and change many. But by that time, that point has been subtly but firmly made any number of ways.
But it is a good song. It is, perhaps, the perfect opening number for Assassins, staking out a major theme and indicating immediacy and relevance. Starting with it would allow the jolt of the apocalyptic carnival setting, in which the assassins here dwell, to be starker; and, after Kennedy’s assassination, revisiting one brief phrase from the song would be enough to remind the audience, complete the circle.
Lloyd’s vision here is transformative; he makes Assassins assume a coherence it has hitherto lacked. Partly, this is about the darker, edgier, more dangerous tone that radiates from every aspect of Soutra Gilmour’s effective design : a huge, oversized, toppled Clown’s head dominates the playing area, it’s open mouth almost like an entrance to Hell; the ceiling is festooned with light bulbs, some lit, some not, all ready for sparky action; the detritus of Carnival life is everywhere, bumper cars, caravans, dress-up clothes.
Neil Austin lights the small space effectively and, aided by Gregory Clarke’s excellent sound design, you really feel the electric chair’s embrace and the explosive effect of wildly aimed guns. Everything about all aspects of the design here is superb, enhancing and underlining the macabre but festive undercurrents of the piece, allowing the weighty considerations which propel the music and narrative to take full bloom. You get caught up in the fun and the jollity: everyone smiles until someone dies.
What is most impressive about Lloyd’s Assassins is the way it can walk the line between tragedy and farce, between opera and vaudeville, with integrity and precision. Chris Bailey’s quite wonderful choreography (who knew Assassins was ripe for razzmatazz ensemble numbers?) makes you feel exuberant and queasy at the same time; it’s the kind of effect The Scottsboro Boys requires and Bailey nails the technique here.
Alan Williams and his seven person orchestra provide marvellous musical support; the score is played with vigour and style, the tempi terrific, the singing mostly perfect. Where the tunes need softness, it is there; where you need to believe a big brass band is in action, you do. More than anything else, the emphasis here is on putting the Musical into Assassins.
Lloyd’s inspirational thought for this production centres around Simon Lipkin’s Proprietor, part Batman villain, part psychopath, part Everyman, part Gatekeeper of Hell, part chronicler of history, but all menace, attitude and satanic possibility. The Proprietor becomes the central, constant presence, simultaneously alarming and comforting, perhaps the embodiment of politics. Lipkin is startlingly good at every aspect of the role; completely present in every moment and singing with full throttle passion. His hysterical moment with a puppet is the comic highlight of the evening.
I have never seen a better Zangara than the one Stewart Clarke brings to life here. Vocally superb, dramatically intense and driven, Clarke paints an unsparing portrait of a man in pain driven to bring pain. He is spectacular. So, too, is David Roberts as the bitter, isolated glass-maker, Czolgosz, who knows how many men it takes to make a gun and who is deeply affected by the militant politics of the outspoken Emma Goldman (a perfectly pitched performance from Melle Stewart, precise and complex). Roberts does not quite have the lower vocal range, the gravelly timbre, to fully colour the Gun Song, but his performance is sublime and he completely delivers a masterful portrait of loneliness and the despair that comes from constant obscurity. His scene with Stewart is sheer delight.
Andy Nyman presents Guiteau as unhinged, a lamentable nobody with aspirations of grandeur. He carefully finds the savage undercurrents and a well-hidden sense of injustice. Funny and awful in turns, his cakewalk to death is ghoulish but comical, and his actual hanging carried off alarmingly well. There is nothing not to like about Harry Morrison’s work as the deluded Jodie Foster stalker, John Hinkley; he personifies plainness, a riot of bad hair, poor posture, terrible clothes and shocking self-esteem. His tuneful duet with Carly Bawden’s Charles Manson acolyte, Squeaky Fromme (another delicious and spot on performance), Unworthy Of Your Love, is a true highlight.
As Samuel Byck, the insane Santa Claus with a passion for Bernstein’s music and a hatred of Richard Nixon so profound that he intends to fly a plane into the White House to end his Presidential term, Mike McShane is absolutely perfect. The intense rage, the almost incoherent yet somehow understandable ravings, the sly humour, the notion of fundamental stupidity – it’s all there in McShane’s superb performance. The sight of this broken, obsessed man making his plans in a discarded bumper car is as chilling as it is dumbfounding.
John Wilkes Booth was 27 when he shot Abraham Lincoln and, aged 31, the multi-talented Aaron Tveit, here making his London debut, is the youngest person by some margin to play the role in a major production in London or New York. This is a great gamble for both Tveit and Lloyd, akin, perhaps, to casting a 25 year old to play the Witch in Into The Woods. It’s a clean break with the historical approach to the casting and playing of the role.
But it is a decision which works wonderfully and pays real dividends for this production. In place of the sense of gravitas and self-righteous indignation usually found in Booth, Tveit brings the arrogance and spontaneity of vain-glorious youth. He becomes the leader and inspiration of the other assassins because he was the first; it is happenstance, nothing else, which marks him out.
With perfect hair, teeth and beard, immaculate tailored clothing, impeccable speech, a twinkle in the eye and a nice line in jazz-hands and fancy footwork, Tveit’s matinee idol Booth is very much the actor, the performer, the manipulator. He sings beautifully too, all seduction and allure as he tempts both audience and fellow assassins into admiring him despite his slaying of Lincoln. This is an exciting and thoroughly realised reimagining of a great Sondheim role.
Jamie Parker makes a very effective and convincing Lee Harvey Oswald, another precise portrait of insecurity, paranoia, uselessness and uncertainty. His scene with Tveit’s Booth, as the latter evokes Shakespeare and the promise of immortality to goad him into action, is electric, pungent with fear, excitement and desolation.
It is always a mystery to me why a director chooses the actor who plays the Balladeer to also play Oswald. The roles were not envisaged to be played by one actor. Lloyd, at least, seeks to justify the double-up here by a sequence which effectively sees the Balladeer corrupted by the others into taking action, underscoring the notion that anyone can be an assassin if the circumstances are correct. But Parker is much less at ease and effective as the Balladeer, here imagined as an archetypal hillbilly with a banjo. His accent was variable and unconvincing and his singing, at least tonight, not as sure and strong as he can sing, as his recent turn as Sky Masterton at Chichester proved. No doubt it will bed in and ripen over time. But it is for Oswald, rightly, that Parker will be here remembered.
Catherine Tate, to quote a Sondheim lyric, is in the wrong story. Her Sarah Jane Moore misses more comic marks than she does Presidents. It’s an unfathomable mis-step by both Lloyd and a talented actress. Both Stewart’s Goldman and Bawden’s Fromme are fully formed, three dimensional characters; Tate is star casting gone more than awry.
As the bystanders, Marc Akinfolarin, Adam Bayjou, Greg Miller Burns, Aoife Nally and Melle Stewart are excellent, playing myriad characters with ease and singing elegantly and robustly.
Some things jar slightly: Guiteau takes forever while aiming his gun at the audience, so rather than being suspenseful and shocking, the moment lacks both; I am not sure it adds anything to have the cast read books while the Texas Book Depository scene plays out. On the other hand, there are wonderful touches which grab attention and sear into memory: the multi Ronald Reagan masks, blank and scary as Satan; the coloured “Hit” and “Miss” signs which judge each assassination attempt; the snatch of West Side Story’s America used to contrast, surprise and sooth; the inspirational idea to use blood-coloured tape for the ticker-tape “parades”, especially the orgiastic final one for Oswald.
This Assassins is energised, visceral and thrilling. Its pulse is strong and incisive and Lloyd’s vision, fresh and vigorous. It won’t appeal necessarily to those who have seen past productions or grown up on the professional recordings. But, for my money, it is a glorious revival which positively revels in its unique take on this, Sondheim’s personal favourite from his canon. And in Tveit, Lipkin, Clarke and Roberts it has a quartet of genuine, remarkable stars.