Thursday, 5 March 2015

Theatre Review: Assassins

How many guns did you have pointed in your face last Friday evening? I reckon I had eight.

But that’s an occupational hazard when you sit in the front row in the teeny tiny Menier Chocolate Factory for a show called Assassins, I guess. It certainly makes you an attentive audience member.

Assassins, currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a musical by Stephen Sondheim (who I love completely and unconditionally, just to get my starting bias out there nice and early) that tells the disparate and depressing stories of the men and women who've tried, successfully or otherwise, to assassinate the President of the United States. A cheery and obvious topic for a musical I'm sure you’ll agree. On the surface they have nothing in common - Squeaky Fromme tried to assassinate Gerald Ford to impress lover Charles Manson, Charles Guiteau assassinated James Garfield because he refused to make him Ambassador to France - but dig a little deeper and does that hold true? Sondheim and book author John Weidman say no, and this potentially difficult to love show set out their stall that the one thing they all have in common - with each other and with us - is that they want their ‘right to be happy’ to be fulfilled.

Carly Bawden, Catherine Tate and the company
Image source.
I say this show is difficult to love, but man did I love it. I loved it so much. So so much. So so so- well you get the picture. Assassins is without question the best thing I've seen in the theatre this year and the best non-Macbeth thing I've seen in ages. I loved it, if you didn't get that message.

Where to start on what’s right with it? Let’s go with the cast, which is so impressive it’s sort of not fair. Much like the people they’re playing, the cast are an odd mix of musical veterans (I last saw two of them in Spamalot, which was weird for my brain to process), comedy heavyweights from improv to sketch shows, established ‘serious’ actors and exciting up-and-comers. Every single one of them turns in a performance so good that it seems mean to highlight any of them. But I'm going to: Michael Xavier, who possesses one of the best voices I've ever heard, is a frighteningly suave and rational John Wilkes Booth; Jamie Parker wrings every ounce of sarcastic charm, and then something much darker, out of his Balladeer-turned-Lee Harvey Oswald, displaying a fantastic musicality along the way; and Andy Nyman is pitch perfect as an unnervingly upbeat Charles Guiteau (and his hanging scene is one of the best/worst moments of pure spectacle in a consistently spectacular show).

Onwards to the production itself which, frankly, is fucking terrifying. Set in the sort of abandoned fairground that nightmares are made of, complete with creepy disembodied clown head on the floor, the show exudes menace from every pore (if shows had pores, which they clearly don’t). The lighting is pale and harsh shot through with garish red and neons, which make the faded carnival colours seem even more threatening. The bare concrete floor - and the dynamics of the Menier space more generally - give off a sort of Slaughterhouse 5 vibe. It is hugely affecting and sets a very particular mood which is sustained for the whole (interval-less) show. Especially when you’re sitting on the front row, where you’re pretty much afraid to move or breathe. The overall effect is hypnotic: you can't not look at it.

The music itself is fantastic - a great example of Sondheim’s brand of pithy, dark social commentary combined with jaunty songs. Whilst not the most memorable of his insanely impressive back catalogue, they are all clever, complex and fantastically realised. Personal favourites include Everybody’s Got The Right, an old school Broadway riff on the American Dream which becomes something quite different in the mouths of these particular characters (and I've had stuck in my head all week) and, as an ex-school band member, I adored the appropriation of the ubiquitously patriotic (trans: really fucking annoying) marches of Sousa used in a distinctly unpatriotic way, a small piece of genius for my money and a small piece of personal revenge for all those early morning practices marching around the tennis courts playing Washington Post. But I digress.

The bad news about Assassins? For hopefully obvious reasons, the entire run is completely sold out. I don’t know if the Menier does returns or anything - this was my first visit, but certainly won’t be my last - but if so you should do whatever is necessary to get one. If not, pray for a transfer for this superlative work. Top, top marks to all involved.

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