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This was always the most audacious of musicals. A show about nine men and women who tried to assasinate eight US presidents, four successfully, five not. Now it gets an audacious production by Jamie Lloyd at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it feels like it’s just been written. A lot of madness has passed under the bridge since the UK premier 22 years ago and it resonates much more today.

The show can sometimes feel more like a song cycle, with each assassin stepping forward to do a turn, but here it feels more like a show. The Proprieter, in gothic clown make-up referencing the American flag, presides over his fairground come shooting range, handing out guns and standing in for presidents. The thoroughly wholesome Balladeer, as American as apple pie, narrates through his song. Here he seems like a 60’s folkie, somewhat appropriate given the closing scene. Assassins tell their stories and commit their crimes whilst we struggle to comprehend their motivation, and this is where Jamie Lloyd’s production stands out, in the psychological depth that emerges. It’s a fascinating piece which subverts the musical form to great effect, not least in the final chorus of Everybody’s Got the Right.

You enter the theatre through the mouth of a clown into what seems to be a disused gothic fairground, with a dodgem and bits of rides, in a traverse setting (design by Lloyd’s regular collaborator, Soutra Gilmour). The success (or otherwise) of each assassination is cleverly marked. It’s louder, brasher and more in-yer-face than any other production I’ve seen. It’s not entirly comfortable and not at all safe, as I think it should be. It can jar with lovers of tradition in musicals. It seems as radical today as it did in 1992.

Jamie Parker, hot on the heels of his Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls at Chichester, is outstanding as the Balladeer (and his other role!), as is Simon Lipkin (one of the best things about the ill-fated I Can’t Sing) as the Proprietor; they anchor the piece whilst the stories of the assassins unfold and interweave. Andy Nyman is terrific as a manic, unhinged Guiteau, who kills James Garfield because he won’t make him Ambassador to France. Aaron Tveit is a fine John Wilks Booth, assassin of Lincoln and father of them all, with great presence and in fine voice. I worried about the casting of Catherine Tate, but she suited the character of dotty Sarah Jane Moore. Stewart Clarke as Zangara and David Roberts as Czolgosz also impress, with excellent characterisations.

This has been a good year on the fringe and off-West End for Sondheim lovers – brilliant Sweeneys in Twickenham and Tooting, Pacific Overtures at the Union, Into the Woods in Walthamstow, the compilation shows Putting it Together & Marry Me a Little at St. James Theatre and now this to end the year – an Assassins for our times, a fresh look at an underated show.

 

 

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One might have expected this 35-year-old Mike Leigh play to have aged, but surprisingly it seems to have matured – with 70’s nostalgia and retro style now an added bonus!

Given millions have seen the TV version, it probably needs little by means of description. Beverly & Laurence have invited new neighbours Angela & Tony around for drinks and nibbles (cheese and pineapple, obviously – this is 1977). They’ve also invited a more long-serving neighbour Susan, who’s teenage daughter Abigail (subject of the play’s title, but an offstage character) is throwing a party in her home. A lot is drunk, Beverly mercilessly nags Laurence & flirts with shy Tony as Anglea watches and Susan frets. Abigail’s party gets out of hand, as does Beverly’s as it moves to its tragi-comic conclusion.

Though still dark, this production seems much funnier. Perhaps familiarity has meant we are less shocked and more prepared to laugh out loud as grotesque Beverly’s hospitality morphs into control, Laurence’s  drive becomes his downfall, Tony reveals a darkness beneath his nerdiness, dull Angela proves to be the only one who’s useful when it comes to the crunch and frumpy Susan eventually fights back. It really is deliciously laugh-out-loud funny with an equal measure of cringe-making moments, all impeccably staged by Lindsay Posner (who proved himself a master of comedy with the current Noises Off revival) on a brilliant period set from Mike Britton – all shades of brown, orange & beige; G-Plan shelf units and leather sofas.

Alison Steadman’s iconic characterisation is a hard act to follow, but Jill Halfpenny’s partial reinvention of Beverly is subtly different whilst retaining the essence of the icon; she commands the stage as she does her soiree. Andy Nyman is the perfect foil, his sniping moving to rage as his wife’s put-downs become more open and more outrageous. Joe Absolom’s controlled performance as Tony means his eruptions shake the theatre when they come. Some have said that Natalie Casey is the weak link in the casting, but I was pleasantly surprised by her interpretation of Angela. Susannah Harker’s role is in many ways the toughest, but hers too is a beautifully judged performance.

It’s great to see the Menier back on form, packed to the rafters and awash with laughter. I’d be surprised if this isn’t another West End transfer for this lovely powerhouse in Southwark.

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