Tuesday, 1 October 2019

REVIEW: Assassins at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury


Stephen Sondheim’s breadth of catalogue is astonishingly good from West side story and Gypsy in the fifties, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd in the seventies and Into the woods and Sunday in the park in the eighties but this nineties musical Assassins is less well known. However, in this latest UK revival at the Watermill we can see it is every bit as good as its predecessors. It is a dark bleak comedy about the notorious assassins who killed or attempted to kill eight US Presidents. At first glance it feels an odd choice for a musical but at a time when US politics seems as divisive as ever and mass murders common place it seems a timely and sharp look at the American gun mentality and the failing American Dream.

The tone is set when we enter the delightfully intimate Watermill auditorium as Simon Kenny’s red and white striped set places us at an American Fairground shooting gallery and as the Proprietor (Joey Hickman who doubles up as the Assistant MD)introduces us to the historical assassins in “Everybody's Got The Right" to be happy, while handing out their chosen weapons. It has the feel of a vaudeville variety show with each Assassin having a distinctive musical style.

The cast of fifteen actor musicians are excellent and Director Bill Buckhurst allows them the freedom to act as Assassins without carrying their musical instruments which in previous Watermill Productions had begun to clutter and inhibit the performance. This allows their individuality to be better developed as their motives for the attempts are explored.

First up is the original Presidential Assassin John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln (1865) (played with great clarity by Alex Mugnaioni) whose motives were clearly stated following the divisive nature of the American Civil war which he says, “killed my country”. He becomes a rallying leader of the team of Assassins over time. He is accompanied by a wonderful Balladeer played by Lillie Flynn who acts a narrator to the action until she is bundled off stage late in the piece.

In "How I Saved Roosevelt" (1933) the crowd claim their success in preventing the attempt in a style of a Barber Street quartet before we see the Assassin Giuseppe Zangara (Zheng Xi Yong) electrocuted. There is a charming scene between the anarchist Emma Goldman (Phoebe Fildes) and Leon Czolgosz (Peter Dukes) a Coca Cola bottle maker, who says he is love with her before shooting dead McKinley (1901).

Samuel Byck’s (a frighteningly maniacal Steve Simmonds) planned an attempt on Nixon (1974) who he saw as part of the fundamentally corrupt American political machine and is portrayed as a complete mad man taping messages to his heroes while dressed as Father Christmas! It is a show highlight!

John Hinkley (Jack Quarton) is obsessively in love with actress Jodie Foster before he attempts to kill Reagan (1981). Charles Guiteau (Eddie Elliot) shooting of Garfield (1881) becomes a darkly comical dance routine on the steps of the Hangman’s noose.

Lynette Fromme (Evelyn Hoskins) and Sara Jane Moore (Sara Posner) separate attempts on Nixon (1975) are explored in an imagined meeting between them on a park bench where they share a joint before their bungled attempts. It is a delightfully comic scene.

Then as the musical draws to a close you realise that the most famous of all Presidential Assassins has been missing as the action moves to the Book Depository in Dallas where we meet Lee Harvey Oswald (Ned Rudkins-Stow). His famous killing of John F Kennedy (1963) gave Booth and all the others legitimacy but the conspiracy theories around this murder are only hinted at.
This is well executed production hinting at the change of motives for these Assassins from idealistic world changers towards mad men on a mission to be noticed and it paints a bleak picture of the American Culture with a who will be next suggestion but it is entertaining, musically satisfying and thought provoking and well worth the revival

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★ 

Seat: Stalls | Price of Ticket: £22
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