Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory surprised me. It surprised me in ways and areas I didn’t think it would, and that makes for a fairly big surprise. As it’s Sondheim, the scent of the unexpected is part of the deal: let’s take the people who assassinated – or attempted to assassinate – presidents of the United States, and make a musical about them, and it will have an episodic structure, and the stories will jump forward and backward and blend and come apart, and it will make perfect sense and it will be amazing. So far, so good and so true.
The thing that surprised me the most in the production directed by Jamie Lloyd is how political it was. Did it play like that 12 years ago at the Donmar? (correction: it’s 22 years as the Donmar production was 1992! where does time go?). The story is about misfits, people left behind and isolated, people who try to find their way back and instead find a back alley to hell. If, twelve years ago, this was empathy for people we probably never meet, today it feels closer to home. The betrayals are personal and the context social. Towards the end, Stewart Clarke’s Giuseppe speaks italian, and David Roberts’ Czolgosz is obviously and primarily a poor polish worker looking for a better life. It’s hard not to think of immigration dreams – american or otherwise – imploding.
The structure of the piece works as if time has collapsed and the stories start to link again by free association. But the links are strong and get stronger, and they function like a noose, smaller and tighter. In fact, the whole production is so tight it gives you no opportunity to relax. Great it is, good for the blood pressure, probably not.
The cast is – how to put it – close to perfection. Everyone is on stage for the duration, which creates a feeling of collective responsibility: everything is done by everyone (including the killings). Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth is the matinée idol assassin, the leader of the pack, confident in thought and action. Simon Lipkin as The Proprietor (think master of ceremonies, when ceremonies are visions of hell) plays everything from presidents to children to angels of darkness. Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau has the supple physicality of Charlie Chaplin but with an optimism that has gone beyond breaking point. It’s hard to take your eyes of him.
Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore is funny with a biting absurdity, laugh at your peril. Jamie Parker as the Balladeer (and something else, I better not spoil it) starts with an easy laid-back quality that belies and illuminates the final desperate act. Carly Bawden as Squeaky Fromme is the girl next door, warm (to the point of scorching) and with issues. Mike McShane as Samuel Byck is Willy Loman pushed beyond self-deception into self-destruction. Stewart Clarke as Giuseppe Zangara has the fires of hell inside him. David Roberts as Leon Czolgosz pulsates with the injustice of every worker who has had his fingers worked to the bone. Harry Morrison as John Hinckley implodes with the need for human connection. Everyone is who they are, and something else, the specific and the collective.
Aesthetically, it’s like a demented production of Cabaret has been washed out in a deserted fairground. The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, has the sharp garish contrast of eighties horror films. It’s nightmare on Pennsylvania avenue, and on every deserted street and foreclosed home in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Jamie Lloyd is directing Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class next, and these two productions already feel like companion pieces, misfits and rulers, desperation and moral vacuum.