Prolific theatre director Jamie Lloyd presents an unrelenting, devilishly dark take on Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s revered, if troubled, musical fantasia of despair, dander and death.
In a decaying, abandoned amusement park, the ghoulish proprietor beckons the assassins, a gun for each of them in his coat pockets. The Menier space is configured with coloured rows of bleachers on two sides, between which the company of 16 remain as they come in and out of the collage of vignettes.
Soutra Gilmour’s relatively simple design features a couple of macabre, oversized amusement park remnants. A clever touch is the use of a bumper car for Samuel Byck’s second tirade (which is set on a freeway to the airport). Gilmour’s costumes, along with the hair and make up design of Richard Mawbey, keeps the performers very in close in appearance to the real life characters they portray.
Lighting designer Neil Austin cleverly uses the strings of fairground light globes to create flashes to accompany gunshots. Austin draws the eye along the long playing space, and creates eerie mood through use of shadow.
Chief amongst Lloyd’s accomplishments is the extent to which the lead performers remain so entirely in character throughout the show. It may sound like an obvious point that should just be taken for granted, but it is all too easy for the principal characters in Assassins to meld into the group when they are not in the spotlight. Here, each character is instantly recognisable from the moment the cohort enter, and remains so throughout.
Lloyd keeps the momentum flowing from scene to scene, holding back almost of the applause for the final bows. Avoiding any possibility of glorifying the assassins, Lloyd ensures that the violent punishment of the death sentences is clearly conveyed. There is little levity in the piece, save for the deliciously vapid humour of Sara Jane Moore. The use of a puppet for Moore’s bratty child is a cute touch. Chris Bailey provides some neat choreography, particularly for the five ensemble members.
Musical director Alan Williams leads a tight band of eight musicians, who deftly perform the wide range of musical styles.
The 2004 Broadway version is presented here, with the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald played by the same actor. Jamie Parker neatly underplays the Balladeer, keeping him strictly as a gently amused observer, similarly capturing the pained confusion and bewilderment of Oswald.
Broadway star Aaron Tveit is a classy presence as John Wilkes Booth, singing sweetly and oozing charisma as the vain, desperate killer. Catherine Tate provides many welcome laughs as addled housewife Moore.
Simon Lipkin drips menace as The Proprietor, skillfully providing additional roles such as several of the unfortunate presidents and even the live voice of the radio.
Carly Bawden gives a polished performance as icy nutjob Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme. Mike McShane effectively portrays the weary defeat of Samuel Byck, impressively holding back from overdoing his two big monologues. Stewart Clarke, as pained immigrant Giuseppe Zangara, and David Roberts, as oppressed labourer Czolgosz, give nuanced, focused performances.
Both Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau and Harry Morrison as John Hinckley expend a little too much manic energy and movement in their performances, putting their work slightly out of focus with their castmates.
Melle Stewart provides a classy cameo as anarchist Emma Goldman, and joins Marc Akinfolarin, Adam Bayjou , Greg Miller Burns and Aoife Nally in providing strong support as ensemble members.
Assassins is playing a sold out season at Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 7 March 2015
Assassins was reviewed 8pm 22 January 2015
Photos: Nobby Clark