Review: Assassins, Union Theatre

“Something bewildering occurred”

Assassins is the latest revival paying tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in his 80th year, in a steady flow of productions which looks set to continue throughout the year with Into the Woods and Passion at the Open Air Theatre and the Donmar respectively. Playing in Southwark’s Union Theatre, this play looks at 9 people, all connected by their attempts to kill a President of the United States of America, some successful, some unsuccessful, as they re-enact their crimes in a timeless smoky limbo where they can interact with each other and we see their own twisted take on the American dream as they look for meaning in what they tried to do. 

I was surprised to find that I just didn’t get it. Indeed I found it quite hard work: musically I did not find it particularly tuneful (only 'Unworthy Of Your Love' has a melody that you could remember 15 minutes after the show had ended) and consequently rather uninvolving. And in its subject matter and structure, it assumes quite an intimate knowledge of American political history, with its array of mostly (to me at least)unfamiliar characters, all out of their historical context to make things even easier.

For me, there was a disconnect from the outset reading through the bios of each of the characters in the programme: there were presidents named there who I knew nothing of, not least when they were in power. So in terms of this being a closer look at the characters and motivations of the people who had for whatever reason, decided their only course of action was to kill the president, it provided little real illumination. The realities of their situations, the strength of their political convictons, the various mental and emotional traumas that have driven them to this breaking point are skated over too briefly in favour of caricature and the surreal interactions with their ‘compatriots’.

There’s no doubting how well performed it is: Glyn Kerslake as the almost ring-leader of the group John Wilkes Booth is smoothly persuasive and Nick Holder’s Santa suited Samuel Bick is probably the strongest, most haunting acting performance on the stage. Leigh McDonald was a delightfully wild-eyed Sara Jane Moore and John Barr’s Charles Guiteau is manically engaging (although I could have done without him singing right in my face at one point, spittle and all).

I had mixed feelings about the staging by Michael Strassen (also the director): too much happening on the sides of the theatre rather than upfront, but the lighting was hazily effective and the six person band was brilliant, interesting orchestrations that dealt well with the wildly varying musical styles covering many of the influences on popular American music. I did like the nice touch of having the Secret Service personnel prowling the street outside the theatre before the show started.

Perhaps Assassins is a piece of theatre that needs to be thought about more and improves on repeated viewing, I’m not aware of anyone I know thinking that this isn’t a superb musical so I was more than a little bemused by my reaction to it. Maybe it was because JFK’s assassination has no personal resonance for me, maybe it was because I couldn’t quite shake my misgivings about its rather cavalier attitude to the portrayal of mental illness, maybe it’s just too American: whatever it was, it just wasn't for me today.

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Programme cost: £1
Booking until 24th July
Note: there’s plenty of loud noises, balloons popping rather than gunshots but still loud!

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