Review: Assassins by Stephen Sondheim (with book by John Weidman), at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Catherine Tate as Sarah Jane Moore. Photo Nobby Clark

Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Catherine Tate as Sarah Jane Moore. Photo Nobby Clark

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. Continue reading

Review: My Fair Lady, at the Sheffield Crucible

Domini West as professor Higgins, Carly Bawden as Eliza and Antony Calf as colonel Pickering. Photo Donald Cooper.

Domini West as professor Higgins, Carly Bawden as Eliza and Antony Calf as colonel Pickering. Photo Donald Cooper.

Sitting in the audience before the performance of My Fair Lady (as often with the Sheffield Crucible, an audience with a high quota of well known theatre people – Michael Grandage, Cameron Mackintosh and Iain Glen among them), the chatter of the matinee crowd was mixing with the joyous noise of make believe Covent Garden on stage. It wasn’t so much a collision of worlds, as two worlds bleeding into each other. I have a soft spot for any production that attempts to blur the line between stage and audience. In this case, this was the perfect start for the three hours of joy that were to follow.

I haven’t seen My Fair Lady on stage before, and I am not sure I have seen the film version all the way through. But the musical is such a big part of collective consciousness that songs, snippets and images connect the production with rich personal memories. Director Daniel Evans doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel or overthrow tradition: his London is a mythical place, not as grimy and miserable as we know it was, but a place of dreams, for Eliza, Higgins and all of us. The production triumphs because this dreamed place is as vivid and heartfelt as anything in real life. Continue reading