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Review of Assassins at the Pleasance Theatre

Assassins: Left to right: Alexander McMorran, Andrew Pepper, Abigail Williams, Michaela Cartmell, Jack Reitman, Conor McFarlane, Toby Hine
Assassins: Left to right: Alexander McMorran, Andrew Pepper, Abigail Williams, Michaela Cartmell, Jack Reitman, Conor McFarlane, Toby Hine

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins has made its way to the Pleasance Theatre, produced by the newly founded Sevans Productions. The story is an episodic account of the successful or attempted assassinations of US Presidents told from the perspectives of the ordinary people who tried or succeeded to kill them.

The relevance of this story in today’s times pretty much speaks for itself, although actually, it was quite a breather for this production to take a step back from the explicit Trump references, which were implied enough from that tone-changing lyric in the opening number, ‘C’mere and kill a president’. 

The production is boxed in a compartmentalised set, which splits into three sections and transports us from one scene to the next by use of a revolving stage. It seems a bit clunky at times and restricts the actors a little bit. There’s something epic about the music which this set doesn’t always work with. Scenes end on a freeze frame as the set transitions, accompanied by nuanced lighting shifts which smooth out the scene changes.

There’s an eerie quality to the score, with its upbeat, showbiz tunes whilst the characters sing about guns and murder. The opening and closing numbers are supposed to have a real impact on the audience; I want the music to hit me, and it just doesn’t quite do that.

Everything is all too still, with little happening in the background of the scenes, and even most the actors are pretty physically static at times. There’s a moment in ‘Unworthy of your Love’ where the orchestrations are begging for some movement, but nothing happens. Jason Kajdi as the Balladeer, sauntering about the stage, performs with a soothing voice and some playful facial expressions, but doesn’t seem to have the freedom in his body to match what he’s singing about.

Abigail Williams and Michaela Cartmell’s scene (playing Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) is a total standout. Their energy is infectious, and the conversation crescendos with a bizarre dark comedy. Williams presents the character’s kooky nature with a charismatic, naturally hilarious flair; you really can’t keep your focus off of her. She also proves a talented multi-roller, as does Alfie Parker, who plays Samuel Byck, dressed as Santa with an idle, drunkenness, and then a little boy with an excited, sugar-overload quality, seamlessly slipping from one character to the other.

Andrew Pepper (playing Charles Guiteau) performs the most memorable musical number in the production with ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’, with his whimsical energy which he carries throughout the show, and which borders on creepy at particular moments; his performance perhaps encapsulates the jarring dark comedy that the musical embraces.

Toby Hine (playing John Hinckley) exhibits a state of nervousness, which is tastefully shown through his introverted uneasiness and Alexander McMorran (playing John Wilkes Booth) has an, at times, comforting ring to his voice, and at others plays with a hoarse quality to make some moments a little more coarse.

This production feels like a work in the makings. Some of the staging decisions seem a little restricting, and not all the characterisations feel fully realised. It’s a fine production, that certainly doesn’t make me enjoy the music any less, but overall it just doesn’t quite hit the target.

3 Star Review

Review by Joseph Winer

You wanna shoot a president?
Over the last 152 years, 9 Americans have tried to kill – no, assassinate – 8 American presidents, only 4 of them successfully. Why?
Sondheim’s Assassins tells us the story of these ambitious, deluded, passionate, desperate people who believed that the solution to their problems was to shoot the guy in charge.

Assassins
20th Mar 2018 – 8th Apr 2018
Main House – Pleasance London
https://www.pleasance.co.uk/

Director: Louise Bakker
Musical Director: Jordan Clarke

ASSASSINS is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr.
Original orchestration by Michael Starobin
Playwright Horizons Inc., New York City, produced ASSASSINS off-Broadway in 1990
First Broadway production, 2004, Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Artistic Director
Performed by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited
Running time – 2 hours with no interval

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