Review: Assassins, Pleasance

As Sondheim celebrates his 70th birthday, his musical Assassins is revived at Pleasance Theatre, London

“Every now and then, the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then, a madman’s bound to come along”

It was interesting to discover in the post-show Q&A that an explicit reference to Trump has been excised from this production of Assassins – a picture of his head removed from the shooting gallery that provides the stark image, and framing device, that opens and closes the show. But given that that above quote comes in very early on, contemporary political resonance is rarely too hard to find, should you wish to look for it.

That’s all the more impressive given that Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) constructed this show back in 1990. And the allure of this slice of Americana, as much musical history as it is socio-political, has proven enduringly popular as it explores something of the people behind the nine recorded attempted assassinations of US presidents.

Directed and designed by Louise Bakker for Sevans Productions, this production plays up the metaphysical nature of the show. This ragtag group from across history collected together in a waiting room where, guided by the commentary of the emcee-like Proprietor (Peter Watts) and the narrative skill of the Balladeer (the appealing Jason Kajdi), they get to tell their stories and themselves held to account as well, . 

As the book touches on the varied reasonings – the mental health issues, the economic pressures, the complete dislocation from society – one can’t help but wish the company could amplify and deepen these threads, particularly on a weekend where people #marchforourlives but fair dos, this isn’t a musical about gun control. What does hit home is the scene of rubbernecking bystanders, indicting a society too keen to be seen rather than addressing such a pernicious ill at its very heart.

And if the production values aren’t necessarily as slick as they could be on the central revolve, Jordan Clarke’s characterful musical direction ensures aural treats. Alfie Parker is wonderfully terrifying as the raging Sam Byck (and a spoilt child to boot), Abigail Williams is vividly effective as Sara Jane Moore and Andrew Pepper nails ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’ with a remarkable but chilling energy. One is struck by the work of the ensemble as a whole though, plus the hope that while the resonance is appreciated, we’re not talking about timeliness… 

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Lidia Crisafulli
Assassins is booking at the Pleasance Theatre until 8th April

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