Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company & The Watermill Theatre Present ASSASSINS. Music/Lyrics By Stephen Sondheim; Book By John Weidman. Nottingham Playhouse 30 October – 16 November 2019
In his film (and subsequent stage show) The Producers, Mel Brookes explores a paradox: designer flop triggers rave reviews. The film/show, itself, mirrors its own subject; what would normally count as tasteless becomes irresistible. Who can forget the melting melody and delightful Busby Berkley dance pastiche of “Springtime For Hitler”?
A couple of decades later, Stephen Sondheim developed that formula in Assassins. There have been seven elected U. S. Presidents who have been the target of an assassin’s bullet; four of these fatally thus. That is shocking; certainly, it’s not the most obvious subject choice for a box office success contemporary version of Vaudeville; yet that’s precisely what Sondheim opted for. And it works a treat.
If Sondheim took a huge risk, so too has Nottingham Playhouse. Not only has it selected a show that requires a reasonable knowledge of American history to lend it coherence, and one which has at its heart a comedic treatment of gun culture, but it has also taken the ‘without interval’ option, creating a performance that lasts just nine minutes shy of two hours. Yet it passes so quickly, and even more would be welcome. What we are offered is heel-and-toe tapping energy from start to finish. Retrospect makes one realise, however, that the musical variants that form the show’s sinews are as complex, tight, and knotty as the ever-changing rhythms of a Sondheim song. This is, apart from anything else, a celebration of Musical Theatre (with a capital M and a capital T.)
For me, two set-pieces stand-out: the scene in which America’s first successful Presidential Assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Alex Mugnaioni) tempts the most recent, Lee Harvey Oswald (Ned Rudkins-Stow) into action. The other concerns the two manic monologues delivered by the Bud-fuelled Samuel Byck (Steve Simmonds). Hypnotic, both, though in quite different ways.
But this is the personification of ensemble work. Actors become instrumentalists, instrumentalists become dancers; a percussionist takes-over a double bass, guitar gives way to banjo, checked shirt and blue jean wearing cowgirl sings with the voice of an angel (Lillie Flynn). All this requires extraordinary correlation, for which Director, Bill Bockhurst, and his Associate Director/Choreographer, Georgina Lamb, liaising with Designer, Simon Kenny, deserve due praise. It’s all less jigsaw and more kaleidoscope.
Assassins premiered over thirty years ago; it could have been yesterday. It does not feel like a revival but fresh-off-the-press. This is because the historical facts that frame the show are secondary to what it’s really all about: human motivation. Or, more precisely, human mis-motivation. It has ever been the curse of our condition, and it is so, still. The coup de theatre upon which the show concludes takes less than a minute, yet its impact is breath-taking. What it is I shall not reveal; but you would be wise to book a ticket and find out.