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.
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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.