2015 started with Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory – one of my favourite theatres due to its scale and how close the audience gets to the action on stage. ‘Assassins’ hit the target, providing spine-chilling, mouth-agape moments, almost eyeball to eyeball with the murderous cast.
I had thought I was a Stephen Sondheim virgin, but reading the programme I was reminded I saw a production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’ at the National Theatre in 2004 (a real throwback which I’ll get to eventually, I hope!) so I’m not quite as inexperienced as I thought…
‘Assassins’ is a musical about the alarmingly numerous attempts to kill Presidents of the United States since 1865 – some more successful than others. It’s dark and funny and macabre – and the Menier was the perfect setting for this intense production.
Going into the theatre, the audience enters a deserted fairground, abandoned dodgem cars, a giant screaming clown’s face and other detritus creating a sinister, shabby atmosphere. The set design by Soutra Gilmour was one of the highlights of the production.
A traverse stage setting was used – the audience either side of the stage area. This was the first time I’ve been to a play staged in this way (though I saw the National Theatre Live broadcast of Macbeth from the Manchester International Festival in 2013 which was like this – but muddier) and it was great – very intimate, which suited the intensity of the piece.
One thing I especially enjoyed was that members of the cast were already on stage, including Jamie Parker expertly strumming a banjo. I always get a thrill if the actors are already on stage when the audience is coming in (‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ and ‘Great Britain’ are other recent examples I’ve seen.)
The production hit the ground running, opening with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I must confess it took me a few minutes to adjust to the combination of song and speech. (I’ve still not quite recovered from going to see ‘Les Miserables’ without being prepared for the ‘sung through’ element. No speaking at all!? Ehh??) However, I was soon entranced.
Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau (who shot President Andrew Garfield) was a particular stand out – and came to a gruesome end. This isn’t a spoiler! I’ve seen several plays in recent memory involving death by hanging and it never fails to chill the blood, seeing the noose placed over the actor’s head, feeling the tension as the body drops…
Proceedings were overseen by Simon Lipkin as the fairground’s sinister Proprietor, and Jamie Parker as The Balladeer, bearing witness to the dark goings on before metamorphosing before our eyes into Lee Harvey Oswald – the most famous assassin of them all.
Jamie Lloyd’s edgy direction, the exuberant live band and the powerful voices of the cast made this a mesmerising piece. Thank goodness though for the comic scenes provided by Catherine Tate, lightening this broken American dream when darkness threatened to overwhelm.
It was also a buzz to see Mike McShane, bringing rage and pathos to his role as failed assassin, Samuel Byck. McShane on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ is one of my fond memories, growing up in the early 90s!