A shot in the dark

MUSICAL Assassins New End Theatre, London
In the words of the popular song, "It ain't what you do/ It's the way that you do it." Last year, the musical The Fields of Ambrosia ("Where everyone knows ya...") opened to frankly hideous reviews. Part of the problem was the story, that of a travelling executioner who drove around with an electric chair in the back of his van. More than one critic took exception to its "frying tonight" tone, shooting thousands of volts through someone while singing about it. Yet the same thing happens in Assassins and I don't recall anyone taking umbrage when it was premiered at the Donmar Warehouse.

This 1990 show by Stephen Sondheim with a book by John Weidman is a musical of murderous intent. Part vaudeville, part history, it is a witty chronicle of the successful and failed attempts to assassinate Presidents of the United States. From John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln to John Hinckley, who tried to despatch Ronald Reagan in a bizarre effort to attract the attention of Jodie Foster, its darkly theatrical examination of character and warped American values would be startling in a play. In a musical, it should be extraordinary.

The original production of Assassins used a band of just three and that's what you get here. When it comes to casting Sondheim shows, debate continues to rage over whether to cast actors who sing or singers who act. Director Sam Buntrock wisely sides with the latter, which makes life easier for musical director Caroline Humphris, who has done exemplary work with the cast, many of whom have fine voices.

Paul Keating, who shot to fame playing the lead role in Tommy, plays the Balladeer, who slips through the show as guide and witness to the events unfolding. It's an excellent performance, entirely focused and wonderfully relaxed with none of the mannerisms affected by many young singers in musicals. Peter Straker has a ringing pomposity as Charles Guiteau, who sings a cakewalk to the gallows after shooting Garfield twice in the back. Andrew Newey as Hinckley and Fiona Dunn as the Charles Manson disciple "Squeaky" Fromme sing the pop duet "Unworthy of Your Love" (with its deliciously cheesy tune and creepy lyrics) with terrific sincerity and strength.

All of this goes some way towards redeeming the poorly directed non-musical scenes. It's clear that Buntrock loves the piece but it needs a much firmer hand to punctuate and shape it. Too many dialogue scenes merely run their course, the stranded cast resorting to over-emoting when more truth is what's needed. The designer Tim Wilson has come up with a nice American gothic-style set but lighting each of the presidents' portraits pulls focus away from the action.

One detail serves to distil the problems. It's crucial that we believe the guns that each of the characters hold are real. If you can't fire blanks, the sound effects have to be first-rate. Here they're muffled and the sense of danger drains away. And no one acts like these things kill; it's as if they're holding waterpistols. Nevertheless, the musical structure is so strong that the show's virtues still shine brightly. If not a palpable hit, then a near miss.

To 3 Aug (0171-794 0022)

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