Assassins- Menier Chocolate Factory
* There are a few spoilers in this but I shall once again try my very best to keep it to a minimum. Also I must issue a quick warning, if you don’t like repeated loud banging noises Assassins is not for you. Just a heads up*
With nine assassination attempts and three on stage executions, Assassins, a show about a ramshackle group of misfits who all tried to assassinate an American president, may not seem an obvious choice for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Christmas show. It was however an inspired choice as it has snuck in in the dying days of 2014 to be one of the best things I have seen all year. Although an oddly structured, slightly bitty piece with no real plot line, Assassins grabs you from the word go and doesn’t let go until the final gun shot rings out, leaving you feeling on edge and not quite sure what’s just hit you. But in the best way.
It seems unfair to single out any one performance as this is very much an ensemble piece with a cast that is universally strong, there are no weak links here. Having said that, there are three members of the cast who could be called ‘main’ characters and are the most magnetic presences in one of the slickest ensembles I have ever seen. Simon Lipkin is magnificent as The Proprietor, the filthy gun salesman who entices these misfits into purchasing his wares and orchestrates each attempt. Lipkin also embodies many of the other characters, including all of the intended presidential victims, with a sort of demented glee. The best representation of this is the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, undertaken by John Hinckley Jr (Harry Morrison) springing back from each shot like a horrible jack-in-the-box, taunting Hinckley with his failure. Lipkin has excellent comedy chops which creates an uneasy balance between the sinister and the ridiculous. His Proprietor is, quite frankly, the stuff of nightmares and it’s brilliant. Secondly we have Jamie Parker as The Balladeer and someone else who I shall not mention so as not to spoil the surprise. He is the folksy banjo playing voice of reason and Parker plays him as a likeable sort of chap with his jeans with massive turn ups and gravelly singing voice. Parker’s strongest scene is certainly as the person who won’t be mentioned and I’ll say no more about except Parker is exceptional and he’ll break your heart. Thirdly there is real life American and Broadway star Aaron Tveit, making his London debut as John Wilkes Booth, the smoothie actor who is made leader of this motley crew by the sheer virtue of being the first one to think to shoot a president. There is a line that describes Booth as living with ‘a grace and glitter’ and Tveit certainly has no problem with that. He is all Southern charm and smiles with blonde hair and shiny eyes. Tveit knows how to command a stage, with a magnificent singing voice and cracking dance moves that draw you to him and even when he is off lurking in the shadows you can see him plotting the next move, to make the next assassination happen. It’s worth noting too that he has one of the greatest confetti dislodging hair flicks I have ever seen. Like Parker, his strongest character scene is the pivotal finale with the unmentionable in which the charm is turned on to devastating effect.
Honourable mention must go to Catherine Tate who, despite being the most recognisable name on the cast list, has a fairly minor role as dopey Sara Jane Moore who, along with Carly Bawden’s Squeaky Fromme, had a pop at Gerald Ford. Tate is the comic relief of the piece as airhead Moore, a woman so daft that whilst practising for her attempt manages to shoot her own dog. She excels at this with her drawn out West Virginia accent and general incompetence and milks the visual gags for all they are worth. What she may lack in singing ability (she’s not bad but she certainly isn’t the strongest of the bunch) she makes up for in comedic timing and performance. She and Bawden make a fantastic double act as the only two females in the show and their scenes are a genuine pleasure to watch. Other honourable mentions go to Andy Nyman as Charles J Guiteau, the hyperactively optimistic killer of President Garfield whose death scene is an amazing feat of staging and performance and Stewart Clarke as Giuseppe Zangara who, blighted by convincingly portrayed stomach troubles, took it upon himself to end Franklin D Roosevelt.
The Menier stage is a very small space but one that has been used to full advantage by set designer Soutra Gilmour. It’s modelled on an abandoned fairground with a dreadful gaping clown head, an old bumper car and signs reading hit and miss that light up accordingly after each attempt as the only real set. This, coupled with the strings of exposed light bulbs that give off a weird light, all help to create the sinister and oppressive atmosphere of the show. Cleverly, members of the cast are interspersed throughout the audience and mount the stairs where the audience are sitting which is extra good fun when you are sitting on the end like I was. It all adds to the tense atmosphere, especially when you have Simon Lipkin with all his guns breathing angrily down your neck. It’s enough to make anyone nervous. The small space works very much in the production’s favour as the audience can make eye contact with the cast members, increasing the tension. It’s super tense when one of them is making eye contact with you whilst pointing a gun in your face.
Having not really heard much Sondheim before I was not really sure what to expect musically but Assassins is an interesting blend of different genres of show tune, from folky ditty to epic love ballad. Some of those songs are damn catchy too, especially The Ballad of Booth, which had me muttering “damn you Lincoln, you righteous whore” under my breath because I could not get it out of my head for DAYS, which obviously seems mad when one is in public. The most interesting number however is ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, a duet between Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden) and John Hinckley Jr (Harry Morrison). It’s a love ballad, beautifully written with a sweet tune and typical musical fare but is all the more twisted by the fact that the couple aren’t singing it to each other but to the object of their obsessions. In Hinckley’s case that’s actress Jodie Foster with whom he was dangerously obsessed and in Fromme’s it was Charles Manson, notorious mass murderer whose inner circle she was in. The juxtaposition between the syrupy music and lyrics and the context it’s being sung in make it a deeply uncomfortable number to sit through, made even weirder by the whole hearted performances of Carly Bawden and Harry Morrison. The deep passion, and therefore the creepy, is coming off them in waves. For those who do like their musicals more traditional, fear not! There ARE dance routines! And really great cheesy ones with clicking and arms being thrust in the air and the nearest thing you are going to get to a kick line in a space that small (kick lines would not have been a good idea as the front row would most likely have received a foot to the face.) All in all Assassins is a strange, magnetic show unlike any I have seen before with some of the best performances of the year. Kill for a ticket. Oooh I should be shot for that one. (YES DOUBLE WHAMMY GUN PUNS)