Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Jamie Lloyd revives Sondheim’s musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Carly Bawden, Catherine Tate, Simon Lipkin and company
Carly Bawden, Catherine Tate, Simon Lipkin and company
© Nobby Clark

Like most devotees of Stephen Sondheim, I admire Assassins, his 1990 ensemble cabaret of a bunch of nuts who tried – some of them successfully – to kill the American president. I don’t love it, though. It is probably the last of his really good, daring and innovative works; everything since has seemed like some sort of work in progress, or outline, or repetition. (Please don’t do Passion, anyone.)

Don’t let this unseasonal grumpiness put you off, though, sampling what is arguably the best anti-American musical of the lot: the screwballs want to avenge their disappointment in the American dream turning sour by killing the head honcho. And it’s all set in a macabre fairground of naked light bulbs with a murderous proprietor (Simon Lipkin) calling the shots and then firing them.

The real context, or spring to the musical, is not set till the end, when bystanders recall where they were when JFK was shot in Dallas in 1963; this should, perhaps, have been used as the show’s frame, instead of Jamie Parker‘s banjo-strumming balladeer morphing, courtesy of a white T-shirt, into Lee Harvey Oswald at the last minute.

Instead, we have unrelated stories of varying intensity, the best recounting how Aaron Tveit‘s sour actor, John Wilkes Booth, shot Abe Lincoln in a theatre because of his own bad reviews; and how the two women (Catherine Tate as a Texan vulgarian and Carly Bawden as a wacko follower of cultist psychopath Charles Manson) who shot – and unforgivably missed – Gerald Ford, find a curious kinship.

Weirdest of all is the case of bespectacled John Hinckley (Harry Morrison), still confined to a psychiatric hospital in Washington DC, turning his obsession with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver into an urge to kill Ronald Reagan; at this point Lloyd’s production erupts in a show of spooky face-masks.

Otherwise, the recreation of a sardonic vaudeville is patchy, despite punchy, nerve-shredding contributions from Mike McShane as Samuel Byck who planned to fly a plane into Richard Nixon’s White House, and Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau who goes crazy with deadly rage after being turned down for a government job.

The show’s actually less enjoyable than it should be because Jamie Lloyd, good director though he is, and his designer, Soutra Gilmour, don’t waste any time on charm (as they’ve already shown in The Commitments and Urinetown).

In current London theatre, Assassins makes an interesting companion piece to Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, both shows mining traditional American musical forms and both flying defiantly in the face of the American musical’s main job of uncomplicated uplift and joy-spreading.

Assassins, for all its technical and artistic expertise – there’s a superb eight-piece band under Alan Williams’s musical direction tucked away in the corner; the audience is ranged in two long banks of seating, traverse-style – is a bit of a downer. There are no take-home songs, and nothing to make you want to see it again, apart from its pedigree. And even the reprise of the jaunty syncopations in "Everybody’s got the right to their dreams" had me thinking, well, do they?

It’s not half as good, really, I now think, as Sondheim’s other collaboration with John Weidman, Pacific Overtures, so beautifully revived at the Union earlier this year – nor is Lloyd’s production remotely comparable to Sam Mendes’s British premiere that opened the Donmar Warehouse in 1992 – and its satirical targets now seem over-obvious for a British audience, if not necessarily for an American one, not least the witty self-referential musical gags about Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story.