Review – Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, Landor Theatre

Monday 28 January 2008

“Yes – but apart from that – how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?”

Right, that’s got that old gag out of the way.


Andrew was rather touched and slightly bewildered when Phil turned up at his door on Saturday with a full motorcade to drive them to the Landor Theatre to see Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (book by John Weidman).

Why the open-top limo on such a cool January evening? Was that a maniacal grin playing across Phil’s mouth? What was with the pink pillbox hat?

And why the elaborate detour taking in the grassy knoll at Larkhall Park fields and Lambeth education department’s book depositary?

Lambeth North tube thought for the weekendAs it was, the procession passed uneventfully (although Phil arrived looking very like a madman in a hat whose plans have been cruelly thwarted) but it did mean that the Whingers missed the imaginative “Thought for the Weekend” at Clapham North tube station which merrily suggested that:

Got the right
To be happy.
Don’t stay mad,
Life’s not as bad
As it seems.

If you keep your
Goal in sight,
You can climb to
Any height.
Got the right
To their dreams…

Well, given that the context of Sondheim’s lyrics is the assassination (or attempted assassination) of various US presidents that’s quite provocative and possibly a contravention of terrorism legislation, but it was nice to see a joined-up fully integrated transport policy at work finally.

Anyway, you’re expecting something about unallocated seating. Well, yes, the Whingers normally make a terrible fuss about unreserved seating but since the Landor allows, nay, practically forces you to take in your beverage in its actual glass and don’t seem to mind you taking in the bottle (or bottles in the Whingers’ case) they decided not to make a fuss about the seating policy, seeing it as a very reasonable trade-off.

The Landor might have got away with it too if about eight of the seats had not had “Reserved” signs on them which just goes to show that they can reserve seats if they try. Our party of eight, meanwhile, were scattered around the auditorium

So, to the show. It started dreadfully with the opening number completely drowned by the band but happily it all soon sorted itself out and the Whingers enjoyed a clutch of excellent performances. Jenni Bowden (playing Sara Jane Moore) was Phil’s particular favourite while Christopher Ragland (John Wilkes Booth) and Nathan Kiley (the Balladeer) impressed Andrew, although Phil found himself irritated by Kiley’s hair which (to Phil’s mind) screamed “low-rent John Barrowman”.

Andrew disagreed vehamently and dragged Phil out of the auditorium litterred with firearms fearing an assassination attempt.

Other highlights included Phil doing his signature sneeze and making an almighty clinking fuss as he insisted on refilling the party members’ glasses of wine from the smuggled-in bottle .

On stage, meanwhile, there was an excellent paper-burning moment which drew gasps of awe from the audience. But how was it done? Had it been soaked in meths? Phil examined Andrew’s empty bottle carefully and concluded he’d been probably been helping outing the props department.

Assassins is not Sondheim’s most tuneful score but it’s an interesting concept and the 1hr 45 minutes without an interval would have flown by were it not for the fact that everyone in the party found they wanted to go to the toilet from about 30 minutes in.

A mixed reception from the eight: some hated the score; others said they had seen better productions of Assassins.

But the Whingers were quite impressed. It’s true that they were determined to enjoy it because the run is sold out. So even if it wasn’t good, they would say it was just so that other people can feel bad about not being able to get a ticket.

And this is undoubtedly a good debut production for West 72nd Productions – “a new professional company run by producer Josh Black, with the aim to showcase new and exciting talent in the musical theatre industry”.

As a nod to the fact that the Landor was celebrating Australia Day, the Whingers had seen fit to ensure that 25% of their party were refugees from the former penal colony.

So it was a shame for the chosen two that their entire nation was shown up when Lee Harvey Oswald’s big dramatic scene was accompanied by a cacophany of partying Aussies from the pub below.

Future WEW outings may therefore be 25% smaller than this one and when Phil and Andrew come to power they will all be transported back anyway.

Assassins West End Whingers entourage

Mark, Sue, Judy, Oliver, Phil, Andrew, Paul, David
Photo courtesy: Sue

The Whingers on their way to the theatre:


17 Responses to “Review – Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, Landor Theatre”

  1. annawaits Says:

    I saw the production at the Sheffield Crucible a couple of years ago and absolutely loved the score. Sure, you don’t come out whistling the songs but I loved it while I was watching it. It’d be interesting to come see this version and compare and contrast.

  2. Gil Says:

    So from an Yank to a bunch of brits, does the fact that this is a bunch of American presidents being shot resonate with you guys? Because I confess that while I love Assassins, I don’t know if I’d give a crap about… I don’t know… a show about the Assassinations of a line of British Prime Ministers?

  3. Well, we probably wouldn’t want to see a show about the assassination of British Prime Ministers either but then the only British Prime Minister even to have been assassinated was Spencer Perceval in 1812 and no-one has ever heard of him.

    But you guys do assassinations with such panache so yes, if they don’t exactly resonate with us, they certainly intrigue – Kennedy and (to a lesser degree) Lincoln anyway.

    It’s the way you throw in things like grassy knolls and Jodie Foster and a performance of “Our American Cousin” that transforms it from the murder of a politician into an art form.

    You do it better than just about anyone else. Even poor Benazir Bhutto’s assassination seems to have been downgraded to her accidentally hitting her head on a sunroof.

    Of course, in Britain we have beheaded royalty in the past, but somehow it doesn’t sound much like musical material to us.

    Apart from the fact that it led to the First World War, the story of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand has much comic potential to commend it.

  4. Boob Says:

    It’s funny you should say that. I’m just completing the final draft of “Bang! The John Bellingham Musical” about Perceval’s assassination and the little heard-of story of his assassin. It starts with his early life in St. Neots and finishes with a climactic dream sequence featuring Patrick Magee, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and a mystic pony. Currently seeking prospective producers for a large scale West End production.

  5. Is the book an adaptation of my friend Richard Hayden’s novel “The Influencing Engine” (Black Swan, 1996)?

    Gil, I think the fact that the show is a dissection of the American Dream, and that Dream has successfully been sold to the rest of the free world, means that its resonance is more than just national-historical. Also just the cultural iconography: I mean, pretty much everybody can relish the fact that the big romantic number “Unworthy Of your Love” is sung by two failed assassins to photos of their respective obsessions Jodie Foster and Charlie Manson.

    Franz Ferdinand: The Musical is, of course, currently being composed by Alex Kapranos. Unless someone gets to the trigger first.

  6. JohnnyFox Says:

    Topically raising my head from the feverish production of the book and lyrics for “Benazita”, my hommage to Rice and Lloyd-Pudding based on the rise, fall, rise and assassination of La Bhutto. We’re considering Amy Winehouse for the title role because she’s already got the hair and the doomed certainty of an early death.

    Sorry I missed Assassins – it’s becoming a habit. I got a scarce ticket at Studio 54 for the not-so-recent version with Neil Patrick Harris and slept for 70 of the 95 minutes. Like so much of the darker and less-than-tuneful Sondheim it just doesn’t “work” for me. He should do Follies 2.

  7. JohnnyFox Says:

    Is it possible to find lower rent than J Barrowman ?

  8. Sean Says:

    I’ve done a little piece about some current Sondheim stuff, including this production. Very decent for a group of youngster on the fringe I thought. Less keen on the Balladeer than you though.

    See my link (why can I never get them to work properly when I reply to messages?)

  9. Sean Says:

    Now it is in blue! Ok, this only happens on the Guardian blogs; ignore me.

  10. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Phil’s depleted memory stick suddenly kicked into action and realised he had heard of Spencer Perceval. He dated a descendant of said assassinated PM many moons ago. Perceval’s PMship lasted much longer than the relationship, but ended in similarly dramatic style.

  11. Gil Says:

    @Andrew: Funny you mention “The Duke”. The original version of Assassins as Sondheim began writing it was originally going to be all sorts of assassins. Perhaps not the Duke, but if I remember correctly they were going to have Martin Luther King as one of the plot points.

  12. Sue Says:

    Actually, dear Whingers, it was Clapham North tube station that featured the sign.

  13. Thanks Sue. Corrected. We also misspelt “around” but unusually no-one pointed that out.

  14. Whingers, Read you review earlier this week, but didn’t have an opportunity to comment until now. It’s been a crazy work week.

    Anyway, unlike JohnnyFox, I loved the recent Broadway revival and thought it to be one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’m an American and a student of history, so it resonated with me more than just about any other show in recent memory (including Wicked!).

    It didn’t hurt that I had a front-row center seat at Studio 54. With Neil Patrick Harris singing at one point, sitting just two feet in front of me, it was hard not to be completely reeled in.

    I also believe that Sondheim’s score is one of his best as he captures the tone and tune of each period of time he’s scoring. My personal favorite in the 2004 revival was the ever brilliant Denis O’Hare as the whacked-out Charles Guiteau singing “I Am Going To The Lordy.” Breathtaking.

    As for comic relief, O’Hare alongside Becky Ann Baker as Sara Jane Moore were hilarious.

    What I loved most about this show is that it pointed to how despite the ill-conceived belief that killing leaders can kill ideas and hope, Americans have a way of rallying and coming together as one. While we may appear to be anything but united right now, I dare say that if any nutcase were to do anything to cause harm to us once again, we’d rally once again very quickly.

    How many other countries can say that?

  15. devon Says:

    i want my damn script!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. devon Says:

    just kidding

  17. […] we did all the assassination gags when it was done at the Landor two and a half years […]

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