Goodness. It seems only yesterday that Phil first encountered Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s (book) Assassins at the Donmar.
That yesterday turns out to be 22 years ago. In between he saw it at the Union Theatre and had somehow forgotten that he’d also seen it at the Landor (Well, he thinks he saw it at the Union, it all sounded very familiar when he reread Andrew’s review, but apparently he wasn’t with Andrew).
But it’s not just Phil that forgets things. His younger companion (no, not Andrew) for the afternoon at the Menier thought she was seeing it for the first time, until she reached the “I am going to the Lordy” song which appears quite late in this 1 hour 45 minute piece.
This being the Menier’s Christmas show expectations are really rather high, especially with Jamie Lloyd directing, Soutra Gilmour designing, a cast that includes Catherine Tate, Andy Nyman, Phil’s favourite History Boy (Jamie Parker), Mike McShane, Whinger-approved Carly (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) Bawden, Aaron Tveit (a leading man from yer actual Broadway) and above all Richard Mawbey on the curling tongs.
The show which intertwines the stories of 9 assassinations or attempted assassinations of US Presidents, presents the killers or would-be-assassins as occasionally politically motivated but generally as obsessive fruit loops either trying to impress someone or make their mark on history.
None of this sounds particularly festive, though it does feature a Father Christmas figure in Samuel Byck (who intended to hijack an aircraft to fly into Nixon’s White House, but shot himself before the plane was even off the runway). McShane plays Byck, a Leonard Bernstein obsessive (cue extracts from West Side Story – cheeky!), rather splendidly and in a wig so convincing Phil didn’t immediately recognise him. That’s the Wigmaster General Mawbey for you.
The cast are across the board excellent, Parker is a cheekily likeable Balladeer before becoming another character that is conspicuous by his absence. Bawden impresses yet again, here playing Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme who, with Sarah Jane Moore (Tate, quite funny), conspire to do for President Ford in an attempt to impress Charles Manson, as one would. Nyman as Charles Guiteau (the man who shot Pres. Garfield), gives his all to the catchy “Lordy” song and hangs impressively and Tveit is as easy on the eye as he is on the ears playing John Wilkes Booth the actor who shot Daniel Day-Lewis.
It’s a tricky show, a tad bitty and not Sondheims’s most impressive score but Jamie Lloyd manages to make it an almost coherent whole and it all zips along aided by Chris Bailey‘s choregraphy. Marks must be deducted for deciding to stage it in the traverse which doesn’t help with sightlines. The show opens with a carousel carried onto the stage and then placed on the floor (surely even the Menier could stretch to a plinth) and we missed a death for the same reason.
Gilmour’s fairground set complete with dodgems car (2nd musical this year to feature them – Made in Dagenham has several) and pools of real mud, creates a suitably creepy atmosphere, especially as you enter the auditorim through a gaping fairground mouth.
But, hurrah, at last, the sound is excellent. Almost all the lyrics can be heard, a rare event in musicals these days. Phil could even hear them over the crackling sound of crisps being eaten by the woman seated next to him (oops, it was Phil’s companion for the afternoon – must have a word).
Phil was kind of hoping it would be rubbish just so he could tell Andrew (as he often does) that he’d dodged a bullet with this one. Turns out it’s not the case at all.