Assassins. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg. Musical director Alexander Unikowski. Everyman Theatre. Belconnen Theatre. To Sept 21.
Having been a Sweeney Todd tragic since being lucky enough to encounter it on its first London run in 1980 (Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, fabulous…) I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to get to Assassins. Everyman Theatre’s rough and energetic production makes the wait worth it.
It’s a wild and surreal look at assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents set in a kind of carnival shooting gallery. There’s not much talking but a lot of mad Sondheim songs with a small orchestra around the back of the stage behind the rough set and even rougher garish lighting. And there is a sense of history and its tendency to repeat itself.
Of course the troupe has to be led by Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth (Jarrad West in a rather strange wig). The rest include President McKinley’s assassin Leon Frank Czolgosz (Isaac Gordon), John Hinckley Jr (Will Collett) who tried to kill Reagan, Jonathan Rush as President Garfield’s rather fey killer Charles Guiteau, Joel Hutchins as Guiseppe Zangara who attempted the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jim Adamik as Samuel Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane and eliminate Nixon by crashing it into the White House. Then there’s the laid back Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Belle Nicol) who had an unsuccessful go at killing President Ford, Sara Jane Moore (Tracy Noble) complete with swinging handbag, who attempted the same a little later and the ambiguous Balladeer (Pippin Carroll).
You see what I mean about a history lesson. If you’re old enough to remember the wall to wall flickering grey and white coverage of Kennedy’s death or if you’ve followed the Lincoln trail into Ford’s Theatre in Washington where Booth shot the president during a performance of Our American Cousin and the basement museum still displays bloodstained relics, then there’s two assassinations you can be sure you know about. But some of the others are more obscure to a non-American audience or have slipped from memory.
However, the show soon gleefully fills you in and although West’s John Wilkes Booth towers above the others in some scenes, it’s the more obscure ones that start to engage. And Lee Harvey Oswald creeps up on you.
There are forceful performances all round and a sense of gleeful teamwork, driven by Alexander Unikowski and his upstage band of musicians shaping Sondheim’s eccentric score. If the singers don’t always quite reach the level of precision needed they make up for it in attack and energy.
The use of the Kennedy footage late in the piece is a debatable choice. It effectively upstages anything the show is doing at that point. On the other hand it presents something of the terrible realities that assassins’ choices can lead to. And it certainly makes the laughter die away.
One of the show’s main songs says, ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy’. But not at this cost.
Great Sondheim, not to be missed.