Review: Assassins (Pleasance Theatre)
The musical is revived at Pleasance Theatre
"Every now and then, the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then, a madman's bound to come along...".
In the wake of the 2016 US election, it's easy to see how the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim's Assassins could take on an eerily pertinent meaning. It's a canny move to revive the show now (especially opening on Sondheim's birthday), in a period when political assumptions are being redrawn, and the White House is regularly mired in scandal. A musical obsessed with spring-loaded Americana, and how fame and that most senior office of President are intrinsically interwoven, feels intensely prescient despite being written almost 30 years ago.
Following an assortment of individuals united by their desire to murder the leader of the free world, Assassins takes us from the closing days of John Wilkes Booth and, eventually, through to the deadly actions of Lee Harvey Oswald. Set on a revolve and overseen by the revolver-distributing emcee The Proprietor (Peter Watts), we meet the successful and non-successful killers, each giving their reasonings, reflecting on their lives, ready to justify their actions.
Director and designer Louise Bakker's staging is an intriguing one. Assembling the assassins in a de facto waiting room during their downtime, each, in turn, is put under the spotlight, scrutinised and chastised for their actions while the Balladeer (Jason Kajdi) looks on.
A garish, cartoonish set design mirrors Bakker's decision to have all the Presidential victims (and would-be victims) portrayed using giant two-dimensional printed facemasks – like literal talking heads. Rather than holding a noble and lofty station, the caricatured political leaders seem almost flimsy and inconsequential (perhaps another comment on the current political climate). While it's a neat idea, it manages to lower the stakes – if the victims of the titular assassins are so meaningless, then the whole exercise feels fruitless.
Some key performances stand out, particularly Abigail Williams' jittery housewife Sara Jane Moore, and the cloying mournfulness of Michaela Cartmell's Lynette Fromme, obsessed with Charles Manson, never feels overdone. The most gripping number, "The Ballad of Guiteau", featured a stand-out turn from Andrew Pepper, juxtaposing the terror of his imminent death on the scaffold with, ironically, a persistent joie-de-vivre.
For all its relevance, it's hard to shake the feeling that the production almost misses its shot at something more intriguing, given the underlying debate. A hurriedly placed picture of Donald Trump, presented alongside the raft of other presidents, feels too easy a way to shoehorn in the current President, almost as a cursory afterthought rather than a central hypothesis. A greater reliance on Sondheim's own lyrics, the double-ironies and jabs at the culture-driven political system in the US, could bring this out. If the company had spent a bit more time mulling over the production rather than jumping the gun, it may have struck something brilliant.
Assassins runs at Pleasance Theatre until 8 April.