A CENTURY OF SADNESS, MADNESS, AND GUNS
“Angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs”. The message is unheard in the nightmare fairground, where beneath ragged seedy fairylights a bloodstained ,clown-faced zombie – a terrifying Simon Lipkin – becomes a series of presidential victims yet still presides over a surging brawling sea of misfits, megalomaniacs, fools and grudges. They bear guns, dream of changing everything by the twitch of a finger. Shots fire, electrocutions fizz, Charles Guiteau dances horribly on the scaffold in 1882 convinced he was right to shoot President Garfield. John Hinckley clutches the picture of Jodie Foster who might just notice him if he shot Reagan. Two young women aim at Gerald Ford and miss; down 110 years differing personalities struggle with life and conclude that the answer is to shoot the President. In the Texas Book Depository Lee Harvey Oswald is persuaded by the whole a pack of ghosts to join the line and be not called murderer but that grander name, “Assassin”.
You will wait a long time for something as unnerving, intelligent, sorrowful and sharply humane as this 105-minute musical. Once more the little Menier has turned up a quality of Sondheim revival which cements the reputation of the piece itself as much as the theatre’s. For Assassins was not really taken to the heart of Broadway in the patriotic Gulf War atmosphere of 1991; too sourly truthful, too willing to peer at the dark side of the American dream, where pursuit of happiness does not mean you actually get it. It is a reflection on nine people who have attempted to kill a US President, ever since the shot by John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln. “Why did you do it, Johnny? You paved the way” sings the Balladeer, a banjo-toting voice of sanity in the lunatic shooting-gallery. He did indeed. Four succeeded.
Jamie Lloyd brings to the piece a violent vigour , a solidly breathless, can’t-look-away 105 minutes against Soutra Gilmour’s fairground design. The transverse stage gives unnervingly many opportunities for the assorted crazies to point their pistols right in our faces. Sondheim’s lyrics and music are as riveting as always, the John Weidman book contributes fierce economical dialogue and – even for those hazy on lesser-known presidents like William McKinley and James Garfield – an admirable clarity, despite the apparently random chronology and chaotic personalities.
Its grace is in expressing, sometimes in pathos and sometimes in wonderfully jarring rum-ti-tum merriment, an unexpected compassion for the helplessness, vanity, paranoia and delusion of the assassins. Moments of fearful levity are studded through it, as no doubt they are in any madhouse: Catherine Tate’s Sara Jane Moore and Carly Bawden’s Lynette Fromme are shockingly funny, Andy Nyman’s bluff, bearded, delusional Guiteau has a creepy fascination, and there is the great unforgettable monologue about the broken American dream by Mike McShane as Byck, in a grimy Santa suit and rusty Dodgem car. Jamie Parker is both the balladeer and, in a coup-de-theatre transformation at the hands of the assassin mob, the shivering baffled Lee Harvey Oswald, driven by ghosts and hopelessness to kill Kennedy.
All are fine performances: but this is an ensemble triumph, a coherent chaos of darkness and futility. It conveys Sondheim’s humane, grimly witty, always complex vision with intelligence,respect and truth.
Box office 020 7378 1713 to 7 March