Review – Assassins at Menier Chocolate Factory

BOOTH I did it do bring down the government of Abraham Lincoln and avenge the ravaged South… I did it so they’d suffer in the North the way we’d suffered in the South…

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Sondheim and Weidman’s morbid musical has assembled quite a cast, each of them playing to their strengths: I am unapologetic about my love of Catherine Tate, especially (cue angry comments) as Donna in Doctor Who. She puts in a broad, exuberant comic turn as Sara Jane Moore.

Andy Nyman is a personal hero: he co-writes Derren Brown’s shows, his own show Ghost Stories is still running in the West End, he wrote a book AND he can act really well. As Charles Guiteau his arms twirl with mountebank showmanship, he manages to sneak in a couple of bits of legerdemain and he gets hanged on stage.

FROMME I did it to make them listen to Charlie… I did it so there’d be a trial, and Charlie would get to be a witness, and he’d be on TV, and he’d save the world!…

But the best performance, by far, was from Mike McShane as Samuel Byck. Squashed into the beat up husk of a fairground bumper car, dressed in the sagging folds of a Santa suit, he delivers a fierce, bitter monologue against society and caps it with a rage-filled scream of ‘FUCK YOUUUUUU’ that echoes and dies in the Chocolate Factory rafters. It’s so stunningly rock-bottom, a gem of desperation and resignation.

Together the characters form a fucked up freak show. These weird, mad, disparate people join together in chorus and it’s wild and messed up. They are mocked and understood in equal measure. The audience is invited both to laugh at them and feel for them. Every time the Proprietor suggests killing a President as a solution to their woes, it gets a laugh. But it feels wrong to laugh…

HINCKLEY I did it to prove to her my everlasting love… I did it so she’d pay attention… Because she wouldn’t take my phone calls…

And I have this rictus grin throughout because the tone is perfect. Dark, funny, grotesque. These people existed, they were responsible for people’s deaths, but time and an ocean have put distance between me and them. Although I can see a grim message through the laughs it’s still just so well pitched. Every word of every song can be heard, the orchestra sounds magnificent playing this odd medley of musical styles.

The Balladeer (Jamie Parker) always remains upbeat, telling the story through hindsight’s lens, banjo in hand ever ready for a pluck or strum. Booth dies in agony, the Balladeer strums his happy tune.

ZANGARA I did it ’cause my belly was on fire… I did it ’cause the bosses made my belly burn… Because nothing stopped the fire–!

Every detail of the design (Soutra Gilmour) reinforces this theme of innocence’s dissolution. The traverse space is decked out like a demonic playground, dim exposed bulbs strung across.

Grimacing clown and ferris wheel cabs have been left to rot in a funfair. This is a postdiluvian American Dream – a post-apocalyptic Disneyland. All that fun, all that money and consumerism and commercialism has disappeared or died.

The costumes are ravaged by time and dirt and dashed expectations. Simon Lipkin, the Proprietor, has make up smeared and dripping like Heath Ledger’s Joker as he climbs out of a giant clown’s face.

And once you’ve had a minute to take all this in, the music starts: a wheezing calliope pipes Hail To The Chief as dissonant bass notes take hold underneath.

Lloyd’s direction controls the traverse space perfectly – clusters of people congregate at either end to observe the main action with grim fascination, or they all band together for a line dance in the middle.

GUITEAU I did it to preserve the Union and promote the sale of my book… I did it ’cause they said I’d be ambassador to France…

The whole show is an exercise in clarity: not just vocal clarity, but a laying bare of the show’s themes. I don’t really know anything about any of these assassins except through this musical. I’d heard of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald but none of the others. That’s partly ignorance, I’ll admit, but in my defence all of them tried to kill their Commander in Chief way before I was born AND on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sondheim is popular over here, but Assassins never really gets much of a look in. Thematically, it’s very Americano-centric (for one thing, they’ve all got guns). Maybe a British audience does not attach the same potency to these people, does not have the same attitude as an American audience would. The assassins did not attack OUR freedom. We do not regard the office of the President with such sacrosanctity.

MOORE I did it so my friends would know where I was coming from… I did it so I’d know where I was coming from… So I’d have someplace to come from, and someplace to go…

So why put it on here and now? Maybe it’s because of bloody Russell Brand, or at least the prolix sentiments he keeps spouting – that society is veined with inequality, that trust in the government and politicians is catatonically low, that misguided fearmongers have stirred up division in order to win votes.

Czolgosz is a low paid immigrant worker frustrated with an unfair labour system. Fromme is brainwashed into paranoia and fear by a charismatic personality. The contemporary parallels are there in abundance; these perennial problems don’t exonerate murder, but they mitigate.

CZOLGOSZ I did it because it is wrong for one man to have so much service when other men have none… I did it because no one cared about the poor man’s pain…

Assassins looks at the corruption of the American dream, that people feel this dream not only can come true, it should come true. It draws out the paradox of a democracy: that a single voice is entitled to be heard, and yet any single voice is impotent, it’s drowned out by the clamour of millions and the louder voices of the rich and the powerful. The American dream is different for different people, but usually it is something to do with fame or it is something to do with money.

Sondheim and Weidman try to understand the 9 people who have attempted or succeeded to assassinate a President. Each of them has a fantastically rich story. Add to that music which never seems to settle on a particular theme, and then on top of it all is everything that Jamie Lloyd and his crew have brought to the production.

It’s all a bit much. And, my god, I loved it.

BYCK I did it to make people listen.

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