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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Assassins review – Sondheim’s dark study of aspiring presidential killers

Assassins at Chichester Festival theatre.
Showbiz death … Assassins at Chichester Festival theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

It begins as a presidential convention complete with Mexican waves, spangled stars and mascots. It then turns to murder – specifically, nine attempts at presidential assassination.

The surreal carnival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical is replaced by the modern circus of politics and rolling news. The Proprietor is a presidential figure, the Balladeers news anchors.

The assassins lounge in what looks to be the Oval office. Along the stage’s central flank is a red carpet and these personalities are the stars, with screens on either side that update us on their crimes.

Assassins at Chichester Festival theatre.
Fame and infamy … Assassins at Chichester Festival theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

This is a thoroughly accomplished reconceptualisation by director Polly Findlay, with an inspired set design by Lizzie Clachan. It underlines the way in which these oddballs, left-behinds and psychopaths invert the American dream, turning their failures into righteous fury, and getting their 15 minutes of fame through infamy. There is confetti as guns are shot into presidents’ chests and even the executions contain the pizzazz of a showbiz death: lights around the gallows as James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau (Harry Hepple), is hanged and around the electric chair of Giuseppe Zangara (Luke Brady) for Roosevelt’s attempted murder.

While there is much in the production that dazzles, the musical in itself does not shock, enlighten or provoke as much as it seeks to in its narrative around the American dream and those it leaves behind.

It is gloriously performed and strong on dark comedy though. Danny Mac leads the pack as Abraham Lincoln’s murderer, John Wilkes Booth, proving himself a strong singer. Sam Oladeinde, as William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, bears the justified rage of a ground-down factory worker. Nick Holder’s stalker-like Samuel Byck resembles the Joker in a soiled Santa Claus suit, tape recorder in hand, as he sends off angry missives to Richard Nixon.

Hepple’s Guiteau is an impish psychopath while Lynette Fromme (Carly Mercedes Dyer) and Sara Jane Moore (Amy Booth-Steel), the duo behind the attempted murder of Gerald Ford, make a music-hall style double act. Fromme is in love with Charles Manson and starts every sentence with “Charlie says …. ”; Moore is a wisecracker and terrible shot.

The satire, bathos and beauty of numbers such as How I Saved Roosevelt and Gun Song are well evoked while Weidman’s book slides between vaudevillian comedy and farce but never quite reaches tragedy.

Samuel Thomas gives the most affecting performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. His assassination of John F Kennedy is accompanied by original footage of the cavalcade, just as Kennedy is shot, and it is the one moment that feels truly shocking. Still, if there were ever an argument against the US’s gun laws in musical form, this would be it.

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