The musical theatre is a very broad church. Only a few hours ago I was writing about how Anything Goes is a brilliant show but ever so lightweight. Today I am writing about Assassins, also a brilliant show (in a different way) but as dark as dark can be. If Anything Goes can be likened to nibbling at a stick of candy floss (and I think it can), Assassins is like tucking in to a lump of nutty slack. It first hit the UK stage in 1992, at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see much theatre, so it’s great to be able to fill in the gaps of one’s Sondheim knowledge. Up till now the only link I had between the notion of assassins and musicals theatre was a character called The Assassin, who sang “I’m an A double S a double S I N”, from Tim Rice’s long forgotten Blondel. I think I used to irritate Mrs C by singing it a lot. Fortunately it’s a phase I’ve grown out of.
Sondheim’s assassins are not really in the Tim Rice mould. The show takes several famous assassins (or wannabe assassins), all of whom had a crack at taking out an American President (and I don’t mean on a dinner date). The show gathers them together and makes them confront each other, even though in real life they lived at different times and places. Sondheim forces them to look at their motives, their modus operandi, and their influence on each other. They challenge each other, they support each other, they goad each other on; and, for the most part, they each come to a sticky end. All this jollity set in a nightmare fantasy fairground. Well, where else would you set such a show? In fact when you descend those old steps into the Menier auditorium it’s like going to Luna Park in Sydney – a thoroughly creepy experience. The place is littered with all sorts of fairground ephemera, including those huge open mouthed clown faces and a decrepit old dodgems car. You have pick your way quite carefully to your seat, which may include encroaching on the stage a little -which is in traverse for this performance, something the Menier lends itself to superbly well.
Regular readers (bless you), may recollect my mantra that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. Well, this is an extremely brave and innovative show, and I certainly wouldn’t class it a failure by any means. To be fair, you couldn’t call it Sondheim’s strongest score, and I can’t really remember any of the tunes; but it’s very enjoyable. However, when it was all over, Mrs C and I looked at each other and just felt completely baffled by the whole thing. If I were to be able to ask Mr Sondheim just one question about it, it would be the one word: “why?” It’s an incredibly niche content – not just murderers, but assassins; not just assassins but assassins of US Presidents. I can’t believe Sondheim had people knocking at his door begging for this to be the subject matter of his latest show. I can only put it down to a huge burst of creative eccentricity.
One of the great things about the Menier is its intimacy. When you sit in row A, our usual chosen position, you’re within touching distance of the cast. Assassins has a cast of sixteen, the majority of whom are all on stage at the same time, and when they’re doing fairly intricate and powerful dance moves and gestures in that relatively small area, it feels incredibly close. There’s a lot of bringing your feet in as much as possible so you can’t trip anyone up (never send a murderer arse over tip is a good motto I feel); and there are some sequences when the cast sit on chairs staring out at the audience, which is an opportunity to see if you can out-stare them. They’ve practised that – they always out-stare you back. Much of Chris Bailey’s choreography is quite stompy (not a criticism, merely an observation), and as the cast stomp around you, you can feel yourself literally shaking in your seat. This is an all-round experience production – loud, vibrating, vivid, powerful and literally in-your-face. No one’s going to nod off during this show.
Whilst there are some star names in the cast, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and it’s hard to identify any particular role that outweighs the others – apart, perhaps, from the central character, “the Proprietor”, played by Simon Lipkin, whose fairground (I presume) we inhabit. He spends most of the show standing up to the assassins and getting regularly shot by them, all the time masked in the most terrifying circus make up. If you see Mr Lipkin’s face in the programme, you’d never believe they were the same person. Imagine an elaborately painted clown’s face that has been left out in the rain for an hour or so, resulting in streams of contrasting colours trickling down and ruining his vest. It’s a long shot, but if you remember the RSC’s Comedy of Errors from the late 1970s, his appearance reminded me strongly of Doctor Pinch, the Schoolmaster. I really enjoyed Mr Lipkin’s performance – powerful, terrifying, intense; the stuff of nightmares.
Another slightly strange role is that of the Balladeer. For the first three-quarters of the show, he sings and strums his banjo on the sidelines, commenting on the action, like an Everyman figure; pivotal in the show numbers but neither, as far as one can make out, an assassin nor a victim. However, towards the end he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, antagonised by John Wilkes Booth (who despatched Abraham Lincoln) into committing a crime you feel he had no reason to undertake other than that supreme sense of flattery when everyone knows your name. He’s played by one of our favourite performers, Jamie Parker; you always know you’re in very safe hands with him in the cast.
The majority of the male assassins are rather dour creatures. David Roberts’ Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley, could be mistaken for Lenin on a dark night, despairingly flitting across the stage in an angst-ridden quest for justice, until he goes all gooey eyed at his heroine Emma Goldman – it’s an unexpectedly amusing scene between them. I was very impressed with Harry Morrison’s performance as John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan; a seething mass of vengeance under a barely concealed veneer of calm – so different from the Mr Morrison we enjoyed a few months ago in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, which is, coincidentally, where was last saw Jamie Parker too.
Steward Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted assassination on Franklin D Roosevelt, is portrayed as a vicious, angry victim himself – driven mental because of his constant stomach pains., Mr Clarke’s unnervingly wild eyes contribute to a very compelling performance, particularly when Zangara meets his electrifying death. Mike McShane, dressed as a rather bedraggled Santa Claus for a reason I couldn’t quite make out, takes the role of Samuel Byck, the unhinged wannabe assassin of Richard Nixon, whose murderous attempt was somewhat hapless and ended up with him killing himself instead. Mr McShane is a fine actor with a great stage presence, but I found his monologues where he is recording messages to Leonard Bernstein just a bit too long, and lacking in dramatic tension. It’s the only place where I felt John Weidman’s book needed some trimming.
On the other hand, a couple of the male assassins were much brighter characters. The always entertaining Andy Nyman (who we’ve seen at the Menier twice before – has he taken up residence?) plays Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy. He’s obsessed with becoming Ambassador to France, and is clearly a maverick and a charlatan, and immense fun to watch. His death by hanging scene is a great piece of stagecraft, encompassing tragedy and hilarity at the same time. Broadway favourite Aaron Tveit takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, bestriding the stage, moustachioed like Van Dyck, cajoling and coaxing many a wannabe assassin into action. With controlled power, Mr Tveit gives us almost every emotion under the sun; never let him near an empty coke bottle. It’s a very enjoyable performance.
There are only two female assassins, both of whom acted in collaboration with each other in two separate attempts to assassinate Gerald Ford: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by the excellent Carly Bawden (unforgettable as Eliza in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady), and TV favourite Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore. Carly Bawden is wonderfully irrepressible as Fromme, balancing no-nonsense serious threats with totally loopy adoration of Charles Manson; and Catherine Tate is hilarious as the rather inept and definitely thick Moore, taking her son and her dog to the assassination, hurling bullets manually at the President when the gun doesn’t work (which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time). If you like Catherine Tate’s TV show, you’ll love her in this – Sara Jane Moore would fit perfectly into her repertoire of weird and wacky characters. Mind you, I’d better be careful what I say about Moore and Fromme as they’re both out on parole now.
A big theatrical experience, with a great band, costumes, make up, and set; more gunshots than you would normally expect in a lifetime at the theatre; and a colourful finale that cleverly covers the entire stage and some of the seats in a sea of blood (don’t worry, it’s an illusion, you don’t get wet). A very high impact production and, rarely for me, one of the occasions when not having an interval feels strangely appropriate. Whilst there is some humour, it’s not what you’d call a Musical Comedy; and I can’t say that you leave the theatre on a high – we left it rather shell-shocked at what we’d seen. But it’s certainly a stunner. It’s on at the Menier until 7th March, but if you haven’t booked, it’s too late as the whole of the rest of the run is sold out. There’s got to be the potential of a transfer, surely – but it needs to be kept intimate, so as to preserve the claustrophobic power of the whole thing. Congratulations to the Menier, another winner!
Production photographs by Nobby Clark