Whatever other ingredients are being used at the Chocolate Factory right now, fruit and nuts are in plentiful supply. This 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music/lyrics) and John Weidman (book), never a commercial success, inverts the great American dream and shows it to have been born with a faulty gene. The title refers to nine misfits, malcontents and psychos, with problems ranging from social rejection to a stomach pain, who all find a common solution – kill the President! Fragmented and lacking both a linear narrative and sympathetic characters, this is not an easy show to take in. Yes we can admire its intellectual vigour, wallow in its musical virtuosity and feel gratitude for the extent to which it extends the boundaries of musical theatre, but can we ever like it? If so, it will not be the first time that a Sondheim musical has been judged ahead of its own time, nor that a major reappraisal has been triggered at this marvellous little South London theatre. The Menier is configured for a traverse stage, bigger than usual here, but with almost a quarter of it occupied throughout by the severed head of a giant clown that had towered over a fairground still presided over by its proprietor (Simon Lipkin); the carnival is definitely over, replaced by a macabre procession of killers, led by John Wilkes Booth (Aaron Tveit). The conventional wisdom that musicals need to be served up with a spoonful of syrup goes out of the window; a crazed Charles Guiteau (Andy Nyman) places his little finger on the gun aimed at President Garfield; John Hinckley (Harry Morrison) serenades Jodie Foster before taking a few pops at Ronald Reagan, who refuses to lie down; a doleful Samuel Byck (Mike McShane), dressed as Santa Claus, outlines his intent to incinerate Richard Nixon in a letter to Leonard Bernstein; there is comedy too as Lynette Fromme (Carly Bawden) and Sara Jane Moore (Catherine Tate) plot the demise of Gerald Ford, but Moore, unable to offload her dog and young son, takes them with her, only to shoot the dog and miss Ford. However, the essential element of the show is not broad comedy but irony, both in the book/lyrics and in Sondheim’s varied score – the malevolent nine form a chorus to celebrate their warped vision with Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy), an anthem of triumph in true Broadway style; songs reflecting the times of events depicted dig into the roots of American patriotic culture; and then there is the irony used previously by Sondheim in Sweeney Todd, that of juxtaposing a lush romantic ballad with a bloody deed. Of course, Sweeney is a fictional melodrama, but the effect is even greater here because the events are lifted from the pages of real history, bringing home how closely the emotions of devotion and obsession lie together. Many of the songs are led by a balladeer (Jamie Parker) who, towards the end of the show, turns into Lee Harvey Oswald. Now the book has to acknowledge that there are some things that still cannot be made fun of and Weidman’s literate writing takes over, expanding on the themes that run throughout. Booth urges Oswald to pick up his rifle and take his place in a line that runs through himself back to Brutus and would-be assassins from the future assure him that his name will live on. Jamie Lloyd’s production is full-on – vivid, energetic and fast-moving – every role is filled perfectly and, if anyone asks which performers shine, the advice should be just to look at the cast list. Soutra Gilmour’s dusty, creepy set, Chris Bailey’s choreography and Alan Williams’ eight piece band are also superb. Assassins has always been a show that is dazzling in parts, but Lloyd’s achievement is to turn it into a theatrical experience that thrills and exhilarates in its entirety. Mr Sondheim, we are unworthy.
Performance date: 6 January 2015