London Theater Review: ‘Assassins’ at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Assassins review Catherine Tate Menier Chocolate

Assassins assemble! Stephen Sondheim and John Wiedman’s ragtag band of marksmen gets a Marvel Comics makeover courtesy of Jamie Lloyd and his regular designer Soutra Gilmour. Gathered in an abandoned, run-down fairground and goaded on by Simon Lipkin’s Joker-like proprietor, the would-be president-killers become a band of supervillains, railing at the world and the American dream that spat them out. It’s a corker of a concept, deliciously designed and supported by real attention to detail throughout. The only thing missing in this “Assassins” is the danger.

The tiny Menier Chocolate Factory has a strong Sondheim track record. The Tony-winning “Sunday in the Park with George” started here, as did “A Little Night Music.” Lloyd has form as well: The Donmar’s acclaimed “Passion” was his.

Fresh from his London staging of “Urinetown,” the enterprising young director deploys the same comic book style to brilliant effect. Every assassin needs a president just as every villain needs a nemesis, and Sondheim’s all-American antiheroes already have their own definitive defects: Trashy Sarah Jane Moore (Catherine Tate), cradling her KFC; militant Leon Czolgosz (David Roberts) clenching his fist; loopy, posturing Charles Guiteau (Andy Nyman) and so on. They’re all united in a common cause, seduced into treason by Aaron Tveit’s slick, suited John Wilkes Booth, and they’re all too aware of their own power. “We become immortal,” one purrs. “A force of history.”

Gilmour’s design goes all-out with the shooting gallery. Hit and miss signs spark up with each shot and Lipkin’s Proprietor – big as the Hulk, and made up like a Jasper Johns take on Heath Ledger’s Joker – can be both target and provocateur, ringmaster and executioner. He’s an imposing, unnerving presence throughout. Elsewhere, Mike McShane’s Samuel Byck drives to kill Nixon in a bumper car, bystanders munch popcorn as they gawp at the sideshow and a row of Ronald Regans lined up like bottles taunt Harry Morrison’s John Hinkley.

You can tell a lot about a production of “Assassins” by which end of the gun it points at its audience: barrel or handle. The best do both: affronting us, yes, but also empowering us, dangling the chance to change history in a shot. Lloyd’s is just too conservative to do that.

Here we, the people, are represented by Jamie Parker’s banjo-wielding Balladeer — part Bruce Springsteen, part Seasick Steve — and Lloyd’s assassins loathe him for his folksy contentedness. Morphing him into Lee Harvey Oswald for that tense final scene — Oswald’s white t-shirt and jeans the same as Springsteen’s — acknowledges that assassins start out as citizens, but the transformation suggests something has to go wrong. Frame assassins as supervillains and you make their motives malignant. What if they mean well? What if they’re right?

Lloyd shies away from that, preferring the safety of the status quo, and by sticking with fantasy he ignores any real threats. Despite this, the show is a joy to watch, with superb setpieces and superhuman attention to tone and textural details. Sound designer Gregory Clarke relishes every click of the catch and squeeze of the trigger, and Neil Austin’s immense lighting doubles gunshots as the flashbulbs of press cameras. Expect an imminent West End transfer. It’s well worth a shot.

assassins-review-catherine-tate-menier-chocolate-factory-london

London Theater Review: 'Assassins' at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Menier Chocolate Factory, London; 212 seats; £39.50 ($62) top. Opened, reviewed Dec 1, 2014. Running time: 1 HOURS 45 MINS.

Production

A Menier Chocolate Factory production of a musical in one act with songs by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman.

Creative

Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Gregory Clarke; choreography, Chris Bailey; hair and make-up design, Richard Mawbey for Wig Specialities; musical supervision and direction Alan Williams.

Cast

Carly Bawden, Stewart Clarke, Simon Lipkin, Mike McShane, Harry Morrison, Andy Nyman, Jamie Parker, David Roberts, Melle Stewart, Catherine Tate, Aaron Tveit, Marc Akinfolarin, Adam Bayjou, Greg Miller Burns, Aoife Nally.

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  1. Craig says:

    Saw the production on Sat Feb 20th with Catherine Tate and Aaron Tveit replacements Anna Francolini and Michael Xavier. Both were sensational in their roles. Booth excooding the right amount of sophistication and charm and manipulative abilities to co-erce the other would be assassins. Anna was amazingly funny in the role of hopeless 5 time married Sarah Jane Moore, comic timing second to none. David Roberts was also the stand out for me as Leon beautiful voice, perfect diction and such intensity as from an actor. I found the production to be funny, fast paced, dark, mysterious and disturbing – was I at the same production as Gregory? (or have the actors just fully settled into their roles and the production found its rhythm?)

    The whole company are on stage at all times and to watch them in their quiet moments always in character was amazing. There was the odd let down in US accent here and there and some poor diction/ below volume from a couple of characters but can be forgiven for what was a great night of theatre. Not sure how it would transfer into a west end theatre without it being in the round or as as staged at Menier

  2. Gregory says:

    A very interesting review. I saw the last preview performance and must say I did not see the superhero theme he mentions.
    I DO agree that the direction is too conservative and monotonous. Assassins are dangerous people. We get it. But that’s ALL the audience is given. No sympathy (except maybe for Colgosz), no humor (no humor!! There are at least 6 big laughs in the script that get missed because the audience is too embroiled in angst to laugh) and no character arcs. Everyone gets the same note to hit over and over again.
    Even the transformation of Balladeer into Oswald is a conservative step: The balladeer here is a grizzled old mountain man who has seen some life. Then he transforms into a disillusioned Oswald who feels just as grizzled and old and angry. Instead of a lost soul grasping for relevancy (as its written).
    The musical dynamics were non-existent and beautiful harmonies are lost. Pacing is deadly slow (yes, pun intended) and adds at least 10 minutes to an already over-crowded auditorium setting.
    Plus, the run-down carnival setting feels stale and trite, like it’s trying to be ‘American Horror Story’ on stage.
    That being said… it’s worth going to see. But I don’t think it’s worth a transfer across the pond.

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