The second show of our Chichester theatre day – and the second not to have an interval, which I’m assuming is a bizarre coincidence – was Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical about the nichiest of niche subjects. Not only is it about assassins, and not only about assassins of American presidents, but it even incorporates failed assassins of American presidents. You can’t help but wonder if Sondheim could have benefited from a few sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch at the time.
There’s something about this show that inspires directors and designers to think outside the box when it comes to arresting their audiences’ attention. When we saw it at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, the foyer and auditorium were decked out as if it were a spooky old fashioned fairground. That makes sense; the original setting for the show starts at a fairground shooting gallery. But at Chichester director Polly Findlay and designer Lizzie Clachan have gone one stage further (in fact, probably several stages further), as the Festival Theatre is currently transformed into one huge American Presidential Party Convention, all stars and stripes and dancing mascots, the band in MAGA hats (with the acronym MAGA removed, probably wisely), a political glitterfest if ever there was one. Uncle Sam would be having a Field Day. Not only that, the foyer is 100% American, with flags and banners; even the tranquil Chichester open space now hosts a hot dog and burger van.
The initial impact when you enter the auditorium is sensational, with so much colour, action, music and fun. And when the centre stage opens to reveal the White House Oval Office, there’s absolutely no room for misinterpreting the focus of the production. The final scene will reveal the office in tatters, clearly alluding to the 2021 Trump-inspired storming of the Capitol. The proprietor (a galvanizingly slick and cynical portrayal by Peter Forbes), who traditionally is the owner of the fairground, is here transformed into a generic American president of the current era – a mix of Trump, Nixon and maybe a spot of George Dubya thrown in for good measure. A master showman, he takes control of the event. There are already a few assassins present, but the proprietor invites members of the audience to come up to join them and maybe take a pot shot at a President; after all, it will make their inadequate and troubled lives so much more worthwhile. Obligingly, Leon Czolgosz and John Hinckley make their way to the stage; think The Price is Right but with added weaponry.
By the time the opening number – the incredibly cynical Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy) – is over, there’s an incredible sense of satisfaction and excitement filling the auditorium. But there’s one more big modernisation shock for the audience – the role of the balladeer has now been split into three roving news reporters, representing CNN, MSNBC and Fox – so at least two of them are respectable. Huge video screens either side of the stage bring us live coverage of news developments at the assassinations (or wannabe assassinations) giving it a very strong up-to-date vibe. This all feels so innovative, so exhilarating; it’s everything you want from a spectacular night out. In fact, you’ve already nailed your own five-star reaction to your own individual mast.
But then something strange occurs. Having peaked so early, and so brilliantly, there’s really only one direction of travel for this show – downwards. It’s like you’ve experienced an extraordinary sugar rush; and then half an hour later, you’re starving. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s far from Sondheim’s best score. There’s only one other song in it that – for me – stands out, Another National Anthem. In effect, musically, there’s nothing to match the visuals that the production constantly hurls at us; you won’t find anything of the nature of the Star Spangled Banner here. Apart from that, my own feeling is that the nature of the show is more contemplative and introverted than befits this framework. For sure, some of the assassins are strong, riveting characters; John Wilkes Booth, for example, is portrayed as totally driven and Charles Guiteau is a mass of vanity and self-confidence. However, the essentially feeble, misfit nature of most of the other characters tends to weigh heavily on the atmosphere of the show. As a result, there’s a disconnect between the brash pizzazz of its style and its actual content, which tends to get dwarfed or drowned out.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of stand-out moments; the deaths of the assassins (those who die, that is) are portrayed spectacularly, with Booth taking his own life on a bale of hay, Zangara virtually strobed to death on the Electric Chair, and Guiteau prancing and preening his way through his hanging. And the use of the real footage of the assassination of John F Kennedy brings a horrific lump to your throat, with immaculate split-second timing of the excellent Samuel Thomas’ Lee Harvey Oswald poking his gun through the back curtain at precisely the right moment.
The show boasts an ensemble of superb practitioners of musical theatre. Danny Mac is incredibly good as Booth, full of attack and presence, manipulating and proud. Harry Hepple shines as Guiteau, his irrepressible vanity and showmanship busting through every move. Carly Mercedes Dyer and Amy Booth-Steel are a delightful double act as Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the wannabe assassins of Gerald Ford (a hilarious brief cameo from Bob Harms). Jack Shalloo is a deeply disturbed John Hinckley, willing to assassinate Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, and Nick Holder puts in a strong performance as Samuel Byck, the degraded Santa Claus, who attempts to assassinate Nixon. It’s a very tough role, as Weidman gives Byck long and intense speeches, which are unbalanced with the style of the rest of the book, but Mr Holder keeps our attention throughout. The always reliable Liam Tamne cuts a fine figure as Balladeer 1, his rich voice working to maximum effect. But everyone puts in an excellent performance; there’s not a weak spot in the cast.
Given all the spark and brashness of the production values, I was surprised to see, at the end of our performance (which was the final preview), that it garnered a muted response from the audience. I was expecting a general roar and massive standing ovation, but no; and I think the cast were disappointed too. Trouble is, it’s not the kind of show that sends you out on a high. In fact, the show ends when everyone on stage points their guns at individual members of the audience, eyeballing us directly to create maximum discomfort; so it’s no wonder our mood plummets.
Brought bang up to date, and with more glitz than you could shake a stick at, it’s doubtless a landmark production. But there’s something, somewhere about it that just doesn’t quite work. If you’re an aficionado of Sondheim, you’ll want to see this show and draw your own conclusions about how successful it is or isn’t. It’s not an easy ride – but it is an unforgettable one.
Production photos by Johan Persson