Watermill Theatre - Assassins
26th September to 26th October 2019
Review from Newbury Theatre.
A musical about the assassination or attempted assassination of seven American Presidents may not sound a very inspiring prospect. It is certainly a dark piece, with moments of humour, but the darkness is alleviated by Stephen Sondheim’s catchy tunes and songs.
The Watermill has had a bumper year with musicals and here we have 15 actor-musicians giving it their all and making for a crowded stage at times.
At the start, the Proprietor (Joey Hickman, with a superior smirk) dishes out guns from a vending machine to the would-be assassins while singing Everybody’s Got the Right to kill a President. As the story progresses, we see each of them in turn and they are all a bit weird, inadequate, delusional but empowered by guns. As you would expect, guns play a large part in the production making me feel rather uneasy at times, particularly when Charles Guiteau the preacher (Eddie Elliott) pointed his gun directly in the face of a front row audience member.
Under director Bill Buckhurst the cast gave strong performances, especially the Balladeer (Lillie Flynn, lovely clear voice), Eddie Elliott with great presence as the manic preacher, Steve Simmonds as the spectacularly over-the-top Samuel Byck, Peter Dukes as the Polish worker Czolgosz and Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer as the unlikely double act who bungle the attempt on Gerald Ford.
Designer Simon Kenny’s simple set lights up like a fruit machine when the first successful shot is made.
Will you like it? Many won’t, and the programme warning “contains themes of violence [!] and contains strong language” indicates what you’re in for, but although the gunshots are many, they aren’t loud. Even if you don’t like the theme, it’s worth seeing for the strong performances and Sondheim’s songs.
At the end, all the assassins come together to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald what he needs to do, in a scene that wouldn’t have occurred to the most rabid conspiracy theorists over Kennedy’s death. And the very final short scene is a powerful coup de theatre and condemnation of America’s gun laws.
Review from The Guardian.
Assassins is almost certainly the musical we deserve right now, but is it what we need? Stephen Sondheim’s musical, which premiered in 1990, sets out to decimate the American Dream but you may ask if there is anything left to decimate.
With a score and lyrics by Sondheim (both brutally clever and inventive) and a snappy book from John Weidman, this is a deeply unsettling yet seductive show about a rostrum of real-life assassination attempts on US presidents, from Abraham Lincoln through to Ronald Reagan. Director Bill Buckhurst has past form with Sondheim revivals and has done a stellar job with his musician-actor ensemble. His production feels punchy, dangerous and downright brave in places. But it’s also a strangely deadening experience – one that lights up the brain but snuffs out the heart.
Buckhurst and designer Simon Kenny shroud their show in a fading American flag: peeling red, white and blue paint adorns the stage walls and, in a typically flamboyant yet devastating scene, an assassin is executed using a flag-coloured noose.
Amid the assassinations, a “cheery” balladeer (played with a cool yet chipper spirit by Lillie Flynn) pops up and reminds us that the bad guys do not win: “Angry men don’t write the rules/and guns don’t right the wrongs.” It’s such a brilliant line, yet there’s something almost too on-the-nose about Sondheim’s icy irony. In another bruising scene, Samuel Byck (Steve Simmonds) sits in a cramped and gloomily-lit booth. Intent on killing President Nixon, this father of four – dressed in a grubby Santa suit – barks out: “Who do we believe? Who do we trust? What do we do?” The parallels with today are almost too pertinent to bear.
It’s the funny scenes that create a bit of distance and allow us to look at the dark themes from a slightly different angle. Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer are excellent as two wannabe assassins of President Ford. They guzzle coke, confess their warped fantasies and practise their aim with that most American of props – a huge bucket of cheap fried chicken.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Carnival of killers
The large highly-talented ensemble of actor/musicians are outstanding…
Assassins, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, October 26
The Watermill’s thrilling production of Assassins, astutely directed by Bill Buckhurst, definitely hits the target in Sondheim's powerful musical, from a book by John Weidman. It explores the world of real-life assassins who each attempted to kill a US president, from Abraham Lincoln to John F Kennedy.
First performed in 1990, Lt brings together the protagonists in America's gun culture society in the land of opportunity (but for who?) as the American Dream starts to fade.
Joey Hickman, as the sleazy proprietor, welcomes us to the US fairground shooting gallery A decaying red, white and blue- striped set, inventively designed by Simon Kennedy introduces us to the nine would-be assassins as they buy their guns from a Coke machine. How appropriate.
The large highly-talented ensemble of actor/musicians are outstanding and embrace Sondheim's varying score that reflects the changing periods with impressive skill.
The dark vaudeville style, where the killers are encouraged to "C'mon and shoot a President" starts with John Wilkes Booth's (Alex Mugnaioni) murder of Abraham Lincoln (Matthew James Hinchliffe), who also convincingly plays the other presidents.
Each of the anarchists has an individual reason for their actions, be that burning ambition, unrequited love, the Great Depression and its subsequent unemployment or even a stomach upset.
Lilly Flynn's glorious Balladeer is a joy as she acts as our narrator. Steve Simmonds gives a powerful performance as the deranged Samuel Byck, who dressed in a bedraggled Santa Clause outfit attempts to hijack a 747 airliner and crash it into the White House and annihilate Richard Nixon, but fails.
Also failing is Sarah Jane Moore (Sara Poyzer) and the hippy Lynette Fromme (Evelyn Hoskins) who, in a hilarious scene, smoke a joint while sitting on a park bench, before botching their attempts to kill President Ford and Italian Guiseppe Zangara (Zheng Xi Yong) who missed President Roosevelt, but killed the mayor of Chicago instead.
Eddie Elliott gives a showstopping Gospel performance as Charles Guiteau, who ends up on the gallows for shooting President Garfield.
Ronald Reagan is shot by the stalker John Hinckley (Jack Quarton) – who is obsessed by Jodie Foster – but he survives and Peter Dukes is the Polish revolutionist infatuated by activist Emma Goldman (Phoebe Fildes) and kills William McKinley
Simon Oskarsson and Grace Lancaster play a myriad of characters in support.
Finally, we arrive at the book depository in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald, splendidly played by Ned Rudkins-Stow, is persuaded in a moving and dramatic scene by the other assassins to kill President Kennedy
The poignant ending gives much food for thought. Highly recommended.
There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("in today's world of violently entrenched opinions, this rich revival is perfectly timed" - ★★★★), the Morning Star ("unerringly excellent... ever more relevant as the US sinks deeper into its grotesque gun culture... a superb multi-talented cast" - ★★★★★), The Spy in the Stalls ("a quite extraordinary show... strongly recommended" - ★★★★★), Pocketsize Theatre ("entertaining, musically satisfying and thought provoking and well worth the revival" - ★★★★), One Minute Theatre ("great music and amusing lyrics... an entertaining performance that hits the target" - ★★★★), The Stage ("a superb cast, and has many moments of genius... both glorious and frightening, the small stage absolutely bursting with talent" - ★★★).