It’s official – the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has done so much to re-investigate and reclaim Sondheim’s work in vivid, striking new ways, is now the composer’s pre-eminent London home.
The Menier’s stunning new production of Assassins, Sondheim and Weidman’s troubling, rumbling dissection of the flip side of the American dream – where anyone can become president, or if not, attempt to kill one – may be its boldest and most daring yet, following previous productions of Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along and Road Show.
It takes a work of suppressed rage and fury, revolving around the assorted disenfranchised and disaffected idealists, misfits and madmen who have either sought to or succeeded in their attempts to assassinate eight American presidents from Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to Ronald Reagan in 1981 and turns it into a gleaming fairground ride that’s at once disturbing and exhilarating.
The tone is set from the moment the audience enters the auditorium through a gaping cartoon mouth that pulls you into a decrepit fairground. A massive clown’s head is lying on its side, and there is a dodgy dodgem car. Designer Soutra Gilmour has once again provided one of her signature fully environmental sets that seems to inhabit the entire theatre.
It gives unity and context to what can sometimes play like a fragmentary series of sketches and songs around presidential assassinations, and Jamie Lloyd’s production achieves a rare narrative drive in the process. It feels like these characters have a through-line with each other, not just in the shattering scene where they come together to urge Lee Harvey Oswald into the ultimate assassination that will memorialise them all forever.
The show also feels ever more uncomfortably close to home in our post 9/11 world – it’s not just that Samuel Byck’s abortive plan to kill Nixon involves hijacking a 747 and crashing it into the White House that seems uncommonly prescient, but also that their various stories – that also involve an obsession with a celebrity actress or a mass murderer – chime so vividly with the age of celebrity we live in.
Lloyd fields the most luxuriously cast ensemble production in town. There isn’t a false performance anywhere. It is amazing to see even a star name like Catherine Tate seize her moment as Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, but otherwise function purely as an ensemble member. Each actor has an opportunity to shine, though, and there are brilliantly characterised turns from Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Stewart Clarke as Guiseppe Zangara, Mike McShane as Samuel Byck and David Roberts as Leon Czolgosz. Each of these are as much about their acting performances as vocal ones, and they are all are outstanding.
But three characters stand out at the front – Broadway import Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth, Jamie Parker as a folk balladeer who becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, and Simon Lipkin as the clown-faced fairground proprietor. The recurring presence of each – sternly principled, lyrical and haunted, by turns – brings this show into a fierce focus that is rarely experienced.
A stunning eight-piece band under Alan Williams and ensemble of five bystanders, who are regularly integrated into the action, complete a thrilling evening.
- Menier Chocolate Factory, London
- November 21-March 7, PN December 1
- Authors: Stephen Sondheim music/lyrics, John Weidman book
- Director: Jamie Lloyd
- Design: Soutra Gilmour set/costume, Neil Austin lighting, Gregory Clarke sound, Richard Mawbey for Wig Specialists hair/make-up
- Musical director: Alan Williams, Bruce Coughlin orchestrations
- Choreographer: Chris Bailey
- Technical: Simon Sturgess production manager, Rebecca Ridley company stage manager, Binnie Bowerman costume supervisor
- Cast: Carly Bawden, Stewart Clarke, Simon Lipkin, Mike McShane, Harry Morrison, Andy Nyman, Jamie Parker, David Roberts, Melle Stewart, Catherine Tate, Aaron Tveit, Marc Akinfolarin, Adam Bayjou, Greg Miller Burns, Aoife Nally
- Producer: Menier Chocolate Factory
- Running time: 1hr 45mins