Review – Assassins, Union Theatre

Friday 2 July 2010

One of the troubles with longevity is a tendency towards repeating oneself. Ask Phil. And the same applies in blogging.

After four years the Whingers are now at that stage where shows are coming round again. What to do? Must we really find new gags every time someone revives something we’ve already seen? That’s going to be a challenge as we only have about six gags which are cunningly recycled.

Anyway, we did all the assassination gags when it was done at the Landor two and a half years ago.

And now (to celebrate the 80th birthday of yadda yadda yadda) Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is revived at the Union Theatre under the direction of Michael Strassen who scored such a critical hit with his production of Sondheim’s Company at the Union a year ago.

Could lightning possibly strike twice?Actually, yes And twice as brightly. Assassins may be half the musical that Company is but this production is twice as good: flawlessly cast, sung (unmiked) as loud and as clear as a bell (and well), imaginatively orchestrated by Richard Bates (and played by a six piece band including occasional banjo and accordion), very well-costumed, atmospherically lit (by Steve Miller) etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Strassen (“Strass” to his friends apparently) has give the role of the “balladeer” shades of Obama (Nolan Frederick, excellent), put Secret Service men and women with earpieces on the street and in the bar beforehand (note to man on street: pointy shoes? are you sure you’re not thinking of Rosa Klebb?) and employs balloon-popping as gunshot (much more effective than the lame cap guns in Calamity Jane upstairs at the Gatehouse – WAKE UP SOUTHERLAND. THERE’S SOMEONE ELSE REVIVING MUSICALS!)**.

It’s refreshing to see a small scale musical in which everyone isn’t played by an 18 year old and there’s so much talent on the stage that it seems churlish to single out favourites, but here are four more of them: Glyn Kerslake as John Wilkes Booth, Leigh McDonald as Sara Jane Moore, John Barr as Charles Guiteau and Nick Holder as Samuel Byck. Eagle-eyed readers will recall that the Whingers marvelled at Mr Holder only the other day at Miniaturists 24 and here he has the opportunity to milk some juicy monologues (including one to Leonard Bernstein). A post-show chat revealed that Mr Holder keeps bees.

Assassins is a tricky musical: it’s short on tunes, rather lopsided, inconclusive, occasionally incoherent and assumes a challenging knowledge of American history. It is sometimes described as a revue to get round these shortcomings but it isn’t even that really.

Nevertheless it’s interesting: interesting enough that despite some occasional sags the Whingers (well Andrew, anyway; Phil couldn’t make it) could sit through the whole thing for 2 hours without an interval (1h 40 admitted to in the programme). This was press night* and only the second performance so it may get a little tighter. In which case it’s difficult to imagine a better production of this coming along any time soon.


* Yup. Press night AND a free ticket. Hoorah! Bumped into The Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner who was unimpressed with Andrew’s attempt to recall the clerihew he had written in her honour; met the Evening Standard‘s Fiona Mountford whose only words were “You didn’t invite me to your party!” (Never met you before, Ms Mountford, that’s why). Also in attendance were Gay Soper and that barmy woman off the Pineapple Dance Studios TV series.

** We hear Strassen will soon be working at the Landor trying to revive the reputation of Nine following the god-awful film version. Good luck with that.


Rating score 5-5 our cups overfloweth


14 Responses to “Review – Assassins, Union Theatre”

  1. Lotte Says:

    Mountford doesn’t deserve to go to anyone’s parties. Have purchased ticket for Assassins. Can’t wait x

  2. Martin Says:

    Hi Guys,

    If you remember Southerland’s Annie Get Your Gun at the Union, you will remember he used that exact balloon gimmick!

    Yet another idea of his the Union have stolen, the first being his all-male G&S shows of course!

  3. JohnnyFox Says:

    FIVE cups? Of what, hemlock? I’m wondering if there’s an element of Emperor’s Clothes in the appreciation of this musical because despite the fact the audience clapped and cheered I simply didn’t ‘get’ it.

    One sweet nugget you overlooked in your reference to other recently-seen stuff is that the Balladeer in the original production was played by Patrick (son of Shirl) Cassidy.

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    wonder why neither Mountford nor Gardner has published yet …

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      still wondering, still no print media review yet … or are they ‘just being kind’ 🙂

      • Or are you losing your mind? My money’s on the latter frankly: Mr Foster didn’t “hate” it, he gave it three stars.

        I quite understand people’s misgivings with the piece but frankly I just accept that I feel bemused about most of Mr Sondheim’s oeuvre one way or another.

      • A Clown Says:

        Hehe why are people bringing my dad into this, he’s Mr Foster not me! I’m still young Master Foster in that household.
        I found it a difficult one to be sure, I was more disappointed than anything as I’d been led to believe I would love it but there does seem to be something of a mystique around Sondheim that few people are willing to question. I don’t have a problem with being left bemused, but surely that makes it less than a five star show?
        I’m still recovering from having Guiteau sing half a song approximately three inches from my face though.

  5. Cat Says:

    Saw this on Friday and enjoyed it very much, though sorry to say I didn’t think it was as good as David Babani’s production at the New End or Nikolai Foster’s at the Sheffield Crucible.

    And although the cast all sang very well, and I agree that it’s lovely to see a fringe troupe not all straight from drama school, I can’t agree with ‘flawlessly cast’. Particularly, Lee Harvey Oswald – isn’t he meant to be c. 24?

    Still, overall a competent production, and a very enjoyable night out.

    Btw, did you know Charles Guiteau wrote a poem called ‘I’m going to the Lordy’ which he recited as he went to the scaffold? Amazing how little of this show is fictional!

  6. “After four years the Whingers are now at that stage where shows are coming round again. What to do?”

    Give up and belt up.

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