Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory, review: Jamie Lloyd takes aim at the American Dream

Catherine Tate is part of the musical's top-drawer ensemble

Roll up, roll up… it’s time to shoot a president! Jamie Lloyd’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical pitches its audience into a zanily macabre funfair, the traverse stage littered with clapped-out bumper cars and a giant clown’s head. Cock a gun, and assassinate the leader of the free world; bells ding, ‘Hit’ or ‘Miss’ signs flash, and garlands of electric lights flicker.

Simon Lipkin as the Proprietor - a muscle-man in smeared facepaint - holds Sondheim’s high-concept show together in this fairground of broken dreams. With Joker-ish menace and charisma, he corrals nine Americans to take a pop at a president, from John Wilkes Booth, who killed President Lincoln in 1865, to Lee Harvey Oswald in the book depository in 1963.

Assassins itself takes aim at the American Dream. This rag-bag group are mostly from a disenfranchised underclass, for who self-determined success proves insubstantial and ungraspable as candyfloss; songs like “Everybody's Got the Right” wittily call the limits of individualism.

What they really want is to be heard - we witness these lone individuals' manic desire to change the world, to take down political systems… this strikes an unsettling chord, arguably now more than ever (post-911, Samuel Byck’s plan to fly a plane into the White House to kill Nixon in 1974 certainly carries greater charge).

But while the assassins claim lofty ideals, these soon give way to pettier desires for personal glory. Shooting a president is one way to get the world to pay attention to you. Which makes it a great subject for the showmanship of a musical, and their big numbers zing with delusions of grandeur as well as grand ambitions. Booth riffs on Henry David Thoreau's line that most men lead lives a quiet desperation - “Desperation yes, but quiet? I don’t think so.”

There's also a slight uneasiness in that Sondheim is actually granting this unstable, murderous lot the immortality they craved. But while Assassins gives them a platform, it also sure gives them enough rope to hang themselves. We feel flickers of sympathy, but we also laugh. Their reasons for killing are absurd - a bad stomach, wanting to impress Jodie Foster… Lloyd’s assured production glosses the darkness to a lustrous, lacquered black that's gleefully enjoyable.

Sondheim's score, played by a mellifluous eight-piece orchestra in the corner, whips through genres, from demented circus music to banjo-led country to big ballads. The top-drawer ensemble give committed performances; Andy Nyman’s deluded Charles Guiteau skips around like a jolly little gnome, optimistic to the end - even when that’s a graphic onstage hanging. Catherine Tate showcases her vocal talents and comedy chops with the extravagant drawl and trigger-happy slapstick of brash housewife Sara Jane Moore. Her scenes with fellow Ford assassin, ‘Squeaky’ Frome (Carly Bawden), don’t quite connect however; although both sparky, the humour doesn’t always land.

This revival, played without an interval, is fleet, but Sondheim’s revue format can feel scrappy, and necessarily often lacks depth; not all characters convince or are fully explored. But this is crackling production is certainly more hit than miss.

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