'Assassins': Theater Review

Assassins Production Still - H 2014
Nobby Clark

Assassins Production Still - H 2014

A top-notch cast and great direction kills it, in the best sense

Director Jamie Lloyd assembles a cast featuring Catherine Tate and Aaron Tveit for the London revival of one of Stephen Sondheim's most controversial musicals

Given that Assassins is all about men and women who feel backed into corners of noisy desperation, the studio-sized, in-the-round space of London's Menier Chocolate Factory makes the perfect claustrophobic setting for this exceptionally well-executed, inventive presentation of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Directed by fast-rising talent Jamie Lloyd, a Donmar Warehouse-veteran whose recent productions (Richard III, Macbeth, Urinetown, The Commitments) have won raves and awards, it's a show that delves deeper into the darkness at the heart of John Weidman's book, upping the madness-and-macabre ante inherent in the material.

The musical was first performed in 1990 and last revived on Broadway in 2004, with Neil Patrick Harris doubling as narrator figure the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald. A transfer to London's West End and perhaps beyond seems almost assured for this production, although we can only hope new venues will find ways of preserving the staging's in-your-face intimacy.

Evoking some kind of fairground in hell, a long, landing-strip-shaped space is banked on two sides by bleacher seating, decorated by set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour with a giant creepy clown mask and a disconnected bumper car that serves multiple purposes throughout, while strings of low-wattage incandescent filament bulbs dangle above.

Within this arena, the cast pace and caper as they unfold a dream-like encounter of famous assassins (Oswald, John Wilkes Booth) and would-be assassins (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Samuel Byck, John Hinckley). The characters meet, mingle and share their stories under the supervision of a Mephistophelean figure called the Proprietor (played here by an eerily feral and spry Simon Lipkin, whose smeary makeup echoes the clown face on set.)

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Although Weidman's dialogue is as sharp as ever, it's Sondheim's songs that characteristically do the heavy thematic lifting throughout. They quizzically chip away at what motivated these troubled people to assassinate prominent politicians of their day, rather than just, say, murder their immediate friends and families or go on mass killing sprees.

The subject matter, and the show's apparent sympathy for these killers, was controversial way back in 1990 and too close to the bone for a production planned to open in 2001 that had to be postponed in the wake of 9/11. Perhaps audiences today are hardened or less easily shocked, but somehow the time feels right for this revival and its willingness to look hard into the psyches of assassins.

Smartly, the book and lyrics don't attempt to provide any kind of trite Psychology 101 answer. Instead, the characters express a plausible tangle of motives both ostensibly pure and absurdly deluded. This is showcased succinctly in the ensemble set piece "Another National Anthem," where President McKinley-assassin Leon Czolgosz (David Roberts) explains that he "did it because no one cared about the poor man's pain," whereas Hinckley (Harry Morrison) claims he "did it so she'd pay attention" (she being Jodie Foster). President Garfield-shooter Charles Guiteau (Andy Nyman, a production standout) "did it to preserve the Union and promote the sale of my book."

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The only common denominator is that they were all basically nuts, but what's acute about this production is the subtle, and yes, empathic way it catches the flavor of each assassins' insanity. Catherine Tate, taking a break from her self-titled British TV show and movie roles, breezily assimilates Sara Jane Moore into her repertoire of daffy, klutzy women, adding a delicious comic spark to what's otherwise a fairly grim-toned show.

On that note, shabby-Santa-suit-clad Mike McShane, a character actor best known in the U.K. for his appearances on the old improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, brings a rich, harrowing poignancy to his turn as Byck, a failed assassin of Richard Nixon. He reveals his fractured mind in a brace of monologues addressed to, among others, Leonard Bernstein.

Throughout, Jamie Parker's Balladeer, incarnating the voice of common sense or historical perspective, comments on the pointlessness of the assassins' actions, sometimes openly mocking them. He notes, for instance, that the country would heal itself after the Civil War, and that the enigmatic Booth (glorious tenor Aaron Tveit) might have shot Lincoln simply because of bad reviews for his acting. It's a smart choice to have the excellent Parker sing in a twangy, country-and-western vocal style that makes even more sense when he morphs into the Texan Oswald at the end. This adds a folksy, music-hall touch, as does the stripped-down, edgier orchestration crafted by Bruce Coughlin.

That less-is-more ethos permeates the production's technical side on every level, from Neil Austin's simple but effective lighting to the economical but expressive choreography by Chris Bailey. The austerity perhaps serves to make the performances seem a bit broader and shoutier at times than might have been strictly desirable, especially given the cast wear ear microphones throughout. But that might have been the intention; it certainly makes them seem crazier and more demented. And at least it will ensure, should the show transfer, that everyone will hear them in the back rows.

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
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Book: John Weidman
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Choreography: Chris Bailey
Musical supervision and direction: Alan Williams
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Presented by Menier Chocolate Factory