Review by Daz Gale
There’s a tough act to follow at Chichester Festival Theatre this year after last summer’s big musical Crazy For You enjoyed rave reviews which led to a soon to open West End transfer. Not the first time that has happened to one of their big summer musicals but how do you follow that in 2023? The answer is with not one but three big musicals as part of their summer season – the first of which in this exciting-looking revival of Assassins… but would this be another hit for them? I knew I had to give it a shot…
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins first opened off-Broadway in 1990 and made its way to London in 1992. Since then it has enjoyed several revivals though is perhaps not one of his most revisited shows. The show sees a group of historical figures who all attempted to assassinate the President of the United States – to various degrees of success. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley Jr are some of the notorious names gathered to relive their attempts to kill the President and imagine a little bit more about what led them to it.
Different to previous iterations of Assassins, this brand-new production uses the inventive setting of a national convention where all the assassins are plucked from the audience like something out of The Price Is Right in a genius start to the show. I say ”the start” though technically there is a pre-show full of mascots and sequin-clad dancers hyping the audience up to singalongs of all-American classic songs. For a show with a dark subject matter, it’s a real juxtaposition to the story that is about to unfold and one that may prove jarring to some but ultimately highlights the comedic aspect of the show (yes, there is comedy).
To that respect, the production value of Assassins is incredibly impressive. While Chichester Festival Theatre has fast become one of my favourite stages to watch shows thanks to its large, in the round nature, this production maximises the use of space not just inside the auditorium but the moment you set foot inside the building with flags adorning the walls, staff members in red hats (though thankfully without Make America Great Again written on them) and hot dog stands to really get you into the spirit. The vision and, pardon the pun, execution of these elements makes this a far more immersive experience than I had expected and elevated the production in a way that minimized one of the weaker elements.
Polly Findlay’s direction brilliantly uses all of these elements to deliver a unique and rather fun vision, with Lizzie Clachan’s design a true work of genius. This production of Assassins has strong elements consistently with great use of Neil Bettles choreography, clever lighting design from Richard Howell and flawless sound design from Gregory Clarke providing an important element due to the number of shots and other crucial effects (one sound effect involving a dog had me howling with laughter for far too long).
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, you will of course expect a high standard of songs and this doesn’t disappoint. Full of clever lyrics and memorable tunes, this may not have as many classics as some of his other musicals but that doesn’t take away from the quality of it at all. Musical highlights include ‘Gun Song’, ‘Another National Anthem’ and the stunning standout ‘Unworthy Of Your Love’.
John Weidman’s book isn’t quite as strong as the music and the production choices. With a strong start, there is a pacing problem which is noticeable due to the 1 hour 50 minute one act running time with several strong scenes followed by others that can never live up to it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it drags and the clever use of this production does mitigate the level of the flaws in this story. I wondered what this show was trying to say – what message it was trying to get across as it never became as clear as one might have hoped.
One element of Assassins that was completely faultless was in its sensational cast. Peter Forbes leads the action as The Proprietor, bringing the audience back throughout the often unrelated sequences and creating a through narrative that would otherwise make less sense in an expertly assured manner. Danny Mac once again proves what a talent he is with his early turn as John Wilkes Booth – though you do have to wait until the shows climax to see him do anything else substantial in a show that is more about the ensemble than any one performer.
Nick Holder is a highlight as Samuel Byck with a story that takes a while to build gradually getting more intense with Nicks acting choices perfectly resembling that. Luke Brady gets a memorable turn as Giuseppe Zangara with Sam Oladeinde also standing out as Leon Czolgosz. Liam Tamne regularly takes us away from the action with his winning turn as the Balladeer. With not a weak link in the cast, I could easily single out every performer and why they were a marvel but that would mean this review would be longer than the show itself.
The two performers who without a doubt stole the entire show, however, deserve their own mention and for very good reason. That accolade goes to Carly Mercedes Dyer as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Amy Booth-Steel as Sara Jane Moore. Forming a fantastic double act on stage, any scene the two of them are in together is guaranteed to be full of laughs – whether they are trying to shoot a bucket of chicken or finding unexpected common interests, they are a complete joy to watch. Carly proves once again she can kill any role she is given with enormous versatility and immeasurable talent, while Amy Booth-Steel delivered one of the single funniest performances I’ve ever seen with flawless comic timing and her own four-letter catchphrase. While the comedy may be in the text, it should never be underestimated the talent it takes for the performers to perfectly deliver it.
A show with a theme as dark as Assassins should not be as fun as this but that is exactly what this production has achieved. Wickedly and riotously funny, it is another stark reminder of the genius of Sondheim and how he could turn any surprising subject and make it captivating and clever. While the book may not reach the same genius quality, the production choices of this negate that to make a madcap slice of musical theatre. It looks like Chichester have done it again – this killer show is a hit!
Assassins plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until 24th June. Tickets from cft.org.uk
Photos by Johan Persson