Assassins review – a killer staging of Sondheim’s musical

Menier Chocolate Factory, London
President-shooters are on song in Jamie Lloyd’s brilliant production

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.

Assassins is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 until 7 March 2015


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Assassins review – Catherine Tate takes aim in Sondheim’s murderous musical
Jamie Lloyd’s aggressively visceral production kills off some of the charm in this daring work that explores the dark side of the American dream, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

02, Dec, 2014 @2:20 PM

Article image
Here Lies Love; The Infidel – the Musical; Gypsy – review
Imelda Marcos takes to the dance floor, David Baddiel takes real risks and Imelda Staunton takes no prisoners in a good week for musical theatre, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

18, Oct, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Into the Woods review – Sondheim's barbed musical staged with brio
Fiasco’s inventive, vigorous version of Stephen Sondheim’s modern fairytale doesn’t entirely mask the problems of James Lapine’s convoluted book

Michael Billington

13, Jul, 2016 @10:56 AM

Article image
Barnum review – all show, not enough tell
A revival of Barnum brings the big top to life (if not the man himself)

Susannah Clapp

10, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Maria Friedman: 'We made Stephen Sondheim cry'

The actor-turned-director tells Rachel Cooke about her career after cancer, coming from a broken home, and rolling into the West End

Rachel Cooke

27, Apr, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
Funny Girl review – Sheridan Smith makes Streisand’s role her own
Smith redefines ‘funny’ as Broadway pizzazz feels the pinch in the Menier’s fastest-selling show ever

Susannah Clapp

06, Dec, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Assassins review – Sondheim’s dark study of aspiring presidential killers
Polly Findlay’s production underlines the way these left-behinds and psychopaths invert the American dream

Arifa Akbar

12, Jun, 2023 @9:45 AM

Article image
Putting It Together review – how Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George was born
James Lapine’s account of how he and Stephen Sondheim braved bad previews and cast members jumping ship to create a hit musical is fascinating

Anthony Quinn

05, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: five stars for Guys & Dolls, plus Marjorie Prime and The Tragedy of Macbeth – review
The audience is swept along with the action in Nicholas Hytner’s thrillingly immersive new Guys and Dolls; Nancy Carroll and Anne Reid surf memory and identity; and Shakespeare’s witches multitask

Susannah Clapp

19, Mar, 2023 @10:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Fairview; The Boy Friend; The Wolf of Wall Street – review
Don’t be fooled by the cosy setting of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dazzling, disconcerting Pulitzer prize-winner

Kate Kellaway

08, Dec, 2019 @10:30 AM