Breaking: ‘Former President Trump was unexpectedly assassinated on his golf course at 2.32pm today by an unknown assassin…’
How long until this frightening headline hits the world’s newspapers? From what quarter of society does the killer come and what are his or her motives? Was the bullet sent on its deadly errand through angry social circumstances or those more politically based and biased? How will the U.S.A adjust? Is this a day for international celebration or outright condemnation? How will history view the event? Fake news or real news? How apposite! Do we want to hear the contemporary truth of the matter or do we want a sanitised version in the media to satisfy our curiosities? Hey! Let’s write a musical drama about it folks. We’ll make a fortune. Cue the late Stephen Sondheim.
Even though it was thirty years ago, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, through the creation of their musical drama Assassins, had already written this proposed musical about the potential of future presidential assassinations. At its pumping and bleeding heart it reflects upon past assassinations and attempted assassinations of U.S presidents. Assassins turns the retrospective stories into a fascinating musical history lesson about the minds of determined obsessives. Some far more stir crazy than others. The show neither condemns nor celebrates. As the first song lyric says “Hey pal, feelin’ blue? Don’t know what to do? Hey pal. I mean you. Yeah. C’mere and kill a president.”
Assassins is still relevant to today’s audiences and unlike some shows, the themes still chime very much with our sadly politically unstable times. The themes include social unrest, the plight of the poor, the anger of the populace at being lied to and cheated, racial tensions and the examination of the darkest corners of today’s society and individual tactics of revenge through an act of violence.
It is also about what is understood by celebrity and the eternal legacy of the murderer. To use the word ‘amuse’ in its broadest and also, most obvious, interpretation, this dark musical, slickly played to the hilt by The Cast at The Duchess Theatre in Long Eaton, certainly amuses on all levels. It is a one act piece and doesn’t let up. An interval would ruin the tension.
As soon as Andrew Buxton (John Wilkes Booth) assassinates President Abraham Lincoln in the shoot out gallery on stage we know what we are in for and we smile and laugh. Should we be really be laughing at the murder of a key historical figure in American history or does the passing of time allow us to detach and redeploy our sympathetic connections from the victim to the perpetrator? Do we feel we have some sympathy for the Assassin? On such considerations do the interpretation of crimes of hot political passion rest.
There are plenty of consummate performers and performances to darkly enjoy in this stupendous production of Assassins by The Cast. The show is self-assuredly directed by Christopher Grantham and well choreographed by Sian Scattergood-Grantham. Chris Grantham’s multi-layered set is superbly eloquent in its locational and visual dexterity complete with fairground flashing lights that explode into celebratory action each time a president is killed.. The production’s high quality lighting design and sound design more than complete the picture. Martin Lewis’ work as Musical Director is bang on the note perfection.
The highlights for me are female loose cannons played by Sian Scattergood-Grantham (Sarah Jane Moore) and Emily Corner (Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) both of whom fail in their assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford as he left the Senator hotel in Sacramento in 1975. Scattergood Grantham and Corner both bring plenty of dotty humour to their interpretations.
Jack Readyhoof gives us a truly frightening performance as the demented Samuel Byck whose intent is to crash a hijacked plane on to the White House to kill President Nixon, like you do. Readyhoof’s rambling maniacal speech must be one of the best amateur theatre renditions of recent years. It is interesting that Sondheim wrote his friend Leonard Bernstein into the show script. Readyhoof’s interpretation is chilling and at the same time darkly comical and a glorious feat of acting.
Jarrod Makin is beautifully twitchy and testy as the constantly on edge John Hinkley Jr. His singing of the duet ‘Unworthy of Your Love” about his obsession with young actress Jodie Foster, haunts. Emily Corner as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme adds some dulcet and tender tones in their duet.
Joe Woffingden puts in an enigmatic, comical and sterling performance as failed evangelist, theologian and rejected U.S Ambassador to France, Charles Guiteau. ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’ a perversely jolly song about being hung, sung by Woffingden has the audience in tucks. Guiteau (1841-1882) shot President Andrew Garfield twice in the back on July 2nd 1881 as the President prepared to board a train at a junction near to Baltimore. He went to the gallows for his crime and recited his poem ‘I Am Going to the Lordy’ on the steps of the gallows. Sondheim uses these words as one of the most poignant songs of the show.
The darkness continues with excellent performances by Graham Buchanan as Giuseppe Zangara an Italian immigrant bricklayer who suffered burning pains in his stomach for which he blamed the capitalist system and went on to attempt to assassinate President elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, then fell off a chair and missed. He was sent to the electric chair for his attempt on Roosevelt’s life. Buchanan’s Italian accent is very convincing. Powerfully voiced Kheenan Jones is especially solid as frustrated and under paid Polish migrant worker Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz himself assassinated President William McKinley point blank with a gun covered in a handkerchief to give the illusion of an injured hand as he stood in line to meet the President.
Later in the play we meet Lee Harvey Oswald played by William Evans in a studied and icy performance. Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F Kennedy. Evans also part narrates Assassins as The Balladeer and his Country and Western smooth voice contrasts wildly with Simon Theobold’s excellently done nut job joker The Proprietor who guides us through the stories of the Assassins with song and subtle creepy gestures.
The Cast production of Assassins is extremely well sung and terrifically performed by a talented amateur cast who give committed and explosive performances throughout. Two hours has never gone by so fast and been quite so chilling in its entertainment with songs such as Everybody’s Got The Right, Unworthy Of Your Love, Something just Broke and Another National Anthem.
Assassins runs at The Duchess Theatre Long Eaton until 25th March.