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A CurtainUp London London Review

"Like children waking in the dark, we don't know where we are." — Samuel Byck
Cast in Assassins (Photo: Nobby Clark)
Writing as we approach the anniversary of John Lennon's assassination in New York in one of those cruelly random acts of violence, Sondheim's musical about attempts on the life of the American presidents opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. I wasn't as shocked as our editor because I knew what to expect from Sondheim's musical. I have a taste for the darker musical productions with a serious message.

Although everyone knows about the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, and we may remember the attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan, the murder of Presidents Garfield and McKinley have made less of an impression here in the UK.

I am glad that I did some historical research before embarking on a visit to the marvelous Chocolate Factory, a tiny venue near London Bridge, Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. This is the place that saw its productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Cage aux Folles make it to Broadway. I also understand that the Menier's superlative stripped back production of The Color Purple with its amazing star Cynthia Erivo will be there soon.

I found it enhanced the production to be familiar with the main characters and those targeting them but of course Sondheim's clear and lucid lyrics make sure we grasp who is who.

Only one British Prime Minister has been assassinated, Spencer Perceval in 1812, so although this predates the attempts on the life of American presidents, it has remained in the UK as a single event. The motive of Perceval's assassin, a businessman with a grievance is rather similar to some of the American assassins.

We enter the auditorium through the mouth of a large clown, like the entrance to a circus big tent where inside there is another giant clown in Soutra Gilmour's exciting and original showman themed set.

Dominating Jamie Lloyd's production are three men who link everything together. The Proprietor of the fairground shooting gallery (Simon Lipkin) is a sinister man, his face disguised like a white faced clown but bloodied with guns tucked into every coat pocket, a coat like a poacher's with many pockets inside and out. He is ready to supply any wannabe assassin with a firearm. Then there is the Balladeer (Jamie Parker) a gentle man who plays the banjo and as Lincoln's assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, played by the excellent and handsome Aaron Tveit whom we remember as Enjolras in the film of Les Miserables.

The Proprietor doubles as all of the presidents in the nine attempts, a jokey paper target pinned on him where the fatal shot is entered. In the minor roles there are many pleasant surprises, Catherine Tate as five times divorced, Sarah Jane Moore who took a shot at Gerald Ford in 1975 just seventeen days after Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Carly Bawden), one of Charles Manson's followers of the murder of Sharon Tate horror, attempted to shoot Gerald Ford. Sondheim speculates that Moore might have known Charles Manson in West Virginia and as the only two women culprits, has them associating.

Andy Nyman is Charles Guiteau, the man who shot President Garfield after he had been repeated turned down for a job. One job he asked for was the ambassador to Vienna. Mike McShane is Samuel Byck who was the unemployed former tyre salesman who, in a preview of 9/11 but in 1974, attempted to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House where the incumbent president was Richard Nixon.

Leon Czolgosz (David Roberts) inspired by the anarchist Emma Goldman (Melle Stewart) shot President McKinley in 1901. Giuseppe Zangara (Stewart Clarke) was angry at President Hoover about the depression and transferred his rage to Roosevelt but missed although the local mayor was killed. Most recently, John Hinkley (Harry Morrison), obsessed by the film Taxi Driver and its star Jodie Foster, attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan in 1981.

The motives of the assassins are starting to fall into place, political and revolutionary, or a personal grudge or those with what we would nowadays call mental health problems. When the Balladeer changes into Lee Harvey Oswald it is John Wilkes Booth who promises him eternal celebrity. Using the example as to who killed Julius Caesar and how someone with little education knows it was Brutus almost 2000 years later, Booth convinces Oswald that he will be "famous forever". True. This sad mix of assassins for whom the American Dream failed, have achieved notoriety.

We see too how the assassins eventually die, by hanging, the horrific electric chair or suicide. Guiteau is hanged from a rope on stage.

There is jaunty choreography and synchronized movement for scenes involving all of the cast. The production comes in at less than two hours and its whirlwind pace is kept going by the Proprietor. Aaron Tveit pulls everyone together as the Confederate sympathizer and first assassin coaching those that succeed him. The songs differ in style according to the era, ranging from marches to ballads and using popular musical styles and I found them surprisingly tuneful as well as lyrically informative. Catherine Tate is deliciously funny with her five failed marriages and lack of shooting prowess.

This show could sell the seats until March again and again. Pray for an extension. It's the perfect combination, Jamie Lloyd's sparky direction, the great Stephen Sondheim and superb performances from actors who can also sing with a production that feels fresh, innovative and purposeful. The finale is changed, original and spectacular but Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman are said to approve. Watch out for the Best Musical nominations!


>Songs and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book written by John Weidman
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Starring: Aaron Tveit, Andy Nyman, Catherine Tate, Simon Lipkin, Jamie Parker, Mike McShane, Harry Morrison, David Roberts
With: Stewart Clarke, Merle Stewart, Marc Akinfolarin, Adam Bayjou, Greg Miller Burns, Aiofe Nally, Melle Stewart
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound Design: Gregory Clarke
Choreography: Chris Bailey
Musical Supervision and Direction: Alam Williams
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Running time: One hours 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office 020 7907 7060
Booking to 7th March 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd December 2014 performance at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)
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