The American Dream promised happiness. As did the traditional American musical. Assassins turns all that on its head. In brief scenes and era-hopping music, it gives voice to men and women who set out to kill American presidents – an act that, it is neatly pointed out, makes them not murderers but assassins. And guarantees them celebrity.
Jamie Lloyd’s production brilliantly captures the essence of Stephen Sondheim’s show, set in the shooting gallery of a fairground. Giddy hopes and grisly outcomes. A string of golden lights dangle above the stage as if at a fair. Underneath, scenes are snarled out, with each shot lighting up a golden big HIT (JFK) or MISS (Nixon).
A swashbuckling Catherine Tate plays the woman who shot at Gerald Ford and missed; Carly Bawden is the Mansonite (“At least Charlie’s the son of God”) whose gun failed to go off.
Some strong double turns put the evening on a knife-edge. Simon Lipkin, pallid and blood-streaked, plays both fairground huckster and presidential victims. A nervily lugubrious Jamie Parker is Lee Harvey Oswald as well as the banjo-strumming balladeer who holds the episodes together. There is bluegrass and hurdy-gurdy and spiritual. In a sudden, daring switch of perspective the voices of non-assassins are heard singing about what they were doing when Kennedy was shot: “I was folding sheets”; “I was getting a shoe shine”. Theirs is the most familiar Sondheim sound – interwoven accounts of daily life delivered to a thrumming pulse. It brings into dazzling, sharp relief the jaggedness and outrage of what has come earlier.