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The American masthead
1040 Abroad

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU
Until March 7, 2015
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Assassins, The Menier Chocolate Factory Andy Nyman and Catherine Tate in Assassins. Photo: Nobby Clark
You enter the Chocolate Factory to find it re–configured this time as a traverse stage, which has been artfully transformed by Soutra Gilmour into a dilapidated fairground shooting gallery. A huge plastic clown’s head, like something out of a Stephen King novel, is overturned and looking forlorn and two lightbulb signs for ‘Hit’ and ‘Miss’ catch your eye.

Sondheim’s darkly delicious musical, from 1990, which recounts the hard luck stories of 9 individuals who attempted and sometimes succeeded to assassinate US Presidents, has in the past been presented as a revue–style sequence of playlets. Here, however, director Jamie Lloyd incorporates all the murderers from the outset as a sort of deranged chorus of extras. They’re under the command of the fairground’s Proprietor (Simon Lipkin), whose face is smudged with Joker make–up and who begins by issuing each a handgun, drawn from the illuminated inside pockets of this long trenchcoat.

Lloyd and choreographer Chris Bailey have done wonders in infusing the piece with such theatrical dynamism and in responding to the richness of Sondheim’s score. The music typically encompasses a plethora of genres: folk ballads, Sousa marches, waltzes, gospel, rag and a honeyed ballad which could have been penned by The Carpenters, 'I am unworthy of your love'. That song is sung by the nerdish, John Hinckley (Harry Morrison), who shot Reagan in order to secure the attentions of Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become totally obsessed. Typical of Sondheim, when he gives you sweet, you’d better watch out.

Weaving together the totally disparate stories of these nine sad folk must have seemed like utter folly. Little unites the stories and indeed some are quite epic but they persevered and the genius of the piece is that it tells each tale with remarkable brevity, while trying, as much as it can, to help us understand their motives.

Assassins, The Menier Chocolate Factory
The cast of Assassins. Photo: Nobby Clark
Some of the stories are better than fiction. Samuel Byck, for example, who tried to fly a light aircraft into the White House to kill Nixon, was foiled in his attempt because he neglected to disengage the wheel blocks from the plane. Embodied here by comedian, Mike McShane, this crabby, walking midlife crisis is eerily dressed in a soiled Santa outfit. Then there’s the utterly ditzy suburban housewife Sarah Jane Moore (comedienne Catherine Tate) and the frenzied cultist Lynette Fromme (Carly Bawden) who farcically tried to get Ford. Both are pure comic gold. One carried her kid and her dog in the car with her to her shooting (well, you can never get a babysitter), while the other was so brainwashed by Charles Manson she was incapable of focusing her festering fury in any one direction.

Aaron Tveit (imported from Broadway) cuts a dash and sings divinely as the actor John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln. Another standout is Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau who shot Garfield. His personality is a tightened coil of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ gone septic.

We end of course with the grassy knoll and the Texas Book Depository and here we see a rather gormless Oswald (Jamie Parker) egged on by the voices of the chorus. As Booth puts it: “Murder is a tawdry little crime but when a President gets killed he is ASSASSINATED”.

Weidman’s book touches on the dark side of the American Dream and how this is the ultimate statement for these lost souls but the piece never tries to judge or pontificate. It is infused with a wit and in no way is this a grim night out. It has, after all, two top comedians in the cast, who are expert at delivering a killer line.

On the creative side Gregory Clarke’s sound design is exemplary. Normally, good sound is when you don’t notice it but here it’s a central element in the production’s success, adding layer upon layer of atmosphere. Again, director Jamie Lloyd confirms he’s at the top of his game.


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