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Review of Assassins at Chichester Festival Theatre

Well, it’s brilliant. But it’s also a little odd. More than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief is required for a show in which John Wilkes Booth (Danny Mac) is in dialogue with Lee Harvey Oswald (Samuel Thomas), the former having died in 1865 and the latter in 1963. And you can forget musical styles matching up with whatever era the show is portraying in any given scene. Some of the thirteen-strong orchestra, ably led by Jo Cichonska, is visible on stage, and the stage itself has a catwalk that extends to the back of the stalls, from which certain characters in certain scenes make their entrances and exits. Pre-show, recorded music is piped in and costumed cast members help to create the atmosphere of an American political convention. These are, as you are aware, very different to political party conferences in Blighty. Can you imagine a Mexican wave at the Liberal Democrats conference? Come to think of it, can you imagine one at Chichester? But it happened, at least on press night.

Assassins - Credit Johan Persson.
Assassins – Credit Johan Persson.

The Festival Theatre has taken the notion that the theatrical experience begins once patrons set foot on a theatre’s grounds to heart: hot dogs and popcorn were on offer from an outside hut, with stewards in baseball hats welcoming people. A large number of American flags hang from the ceiling in the foyer. Three ‘balladeers’ present proceedings in the form of news broadcasts. Of course, there wasn’t colour television and ‘breaking news’ in 1865 – and that isn’t the only absurdity. The opening scene was originally set in a fairground, but still the references to a Ferris wheel and bumper cars remain, even though neither would be reasonably expected to be found in a conference centre.

The story is, essentially, about various assassination attempts over the course of American history on whoever the President of the United States of America was at the time. This is not quite the same, despite the show’s title, as being about the people who made those attempts – more failed than succeeded. I found the Wikipedia page for John Wilkes Booth a fascinating read on the train coming back to London, for instance, and most of the biographical detail there isn’t included in the show. At least Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Carly Mercedes Dyer) and John Hinckley (Jack Shalloo) are given the opportunity to express their (albeit obsessive) love for Charles Manson and Jodie Foster respectively.

Elsewhere, lines are borrowed from West Side Story and the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman, which intrinsically stops this show from being entirely original. Despite a set-up that assumes to be very loud is to be very American, some nuances do creep in (it is, after all, a Sondheim musical), though the energy levels inescapably flag from time to time. But it says something that the most absorbing scenes in a musical (and a Sondheim musical, no less) comprised a couple of long-spoken monologues by Nick Holder’s Samuel Byck (the one who attempted an assassination on Richard Nixon).

Gregory Clarke’s sound design is excellent, with the gunshots, plenteous as they are, sufficiently terrifying and convincing. Some comic relief comes in the form of Amy Booth-Steel’s Sara Jane Moore, who comes across as more naïve than incompetent – Fromme’s exasperation at Moore bringing her (Moore’s) son to a planned assassination attempt (Moore’s preparation for the shooting took so much time and energy she forgot there was the American equivalent of an inset day) was palpable.

It’s not all gunshots – American justice is meted out in one scene in the form of an electric chair, and in another, a noose appears. If it comes across as demented and disturbing, that’s what it’s meant to be, with extensive use of two giant screens used for still and moving images and projections. Highly idiosyncratic, this is probably as good a production of Assassins as it’s possible to achieve.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A surreal carnival. And a group of people who have one thing in common: they want to assassinate the President of the United States. Some succeed, some fail. But there’s a prize for them all: a place in the history books.

John Wilkes Booth. Lee Harvey Oswald. Leon Czolgosz. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. John Hinckley. Charles Guiteau. Sara Jane Moore. Giuseppe Zangara. Samuel Byck. Men and women whose fervour took them to the very edge.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Tony Award-winning biting musical comedy takes us on a daring, time-bending journey through American history.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Sat 3 – Sat 24 Jun

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