Review: Assassins, Union Theatre

“Something bewildering occurred”

Assassins is the latest revival paying tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in his 80th year, in a steady flow of productions which looks set to continue throughout the year with Into the Woods and Passion at the Open Air Theatre and the Donmar respectively. Playing in Southwark’s Union Theatre, this play looks at 9 people, all connected by their attempts to kill a President of the United States of America, some successful, some unsuccessful, as they re-enact their crimes in a timeless smoky limbo where they can interact with each other and we see their own twisted take on the American dream as they look for meaning in what they tried to do. 

I was surprised to find that I just didn’t get it. Indeed I found it quite hard work: musically I did not find it particularly tuneful (only ‘Unworthy Of Your Love’ has a melody that you could remember 15 minutes after the show had ended) and consequently rather uninvolving. And in its subject matter and structure, it assumes quite an intimate knowledge of American political history, with its array of mostly (to me at least)unfamiliar  characters, all out of their historical context to make things even easier.

For me, there was a disconnect from the outset reading through the bios of each of the characters in the programme: there were presidents named there who I knew nothing of, not least when they were in power. So in terms of this being a closer look at the characters and motivations of the people who had for whatever reason, decided their only course of action was to kill the president, it provided little real illumination. The realities of their situations, the strength of their political convictons, the various mental and emotional traumas that have driven them to this breaking point are skated over too briefly in favour of caricature and the surreal interactions with their ‘compatriots’.

There’s no doubting how well performed it is: Glyn Kerslake as the almost ring-leader of the group John Wilkes Booth is smoothly persuasive and Nick Holder’s Santa suited Samuel Bick is probably the strongest, most haunting acting performance on the stage. Leigh McDonald was a delightfully wild-eyed Sara Jane Moore and John Barr’s Charles Guiteau is manically engaging (although I could have done without him singing right in my face at one point, spittle and all).

I had mixed feelings about the staging by Michael Strassen (also the director): too much happening on the sides of the theatre rather than upfront, but the lighting was hazily effective and the six person band was brilliant, interesting orchestrations that dealt well with the wildly varying musical styles covering many of the influences on popular American music. I did like the nice touch of having the Secret Service personnel prowling the street outside the theatre before the show started.

Perhaps Assassins is a piece of theatre that needs to be thought about more and improves on repeated viewing, I’m not aware of anyone I know thinking that this isn’t a superb musical so I was more than a little bemused by my reaction to it. Maybe it was because JFK’s assassination has no personal resonance for me, maybe it was because I couldn’t quite shake my misgivings about its rather cavalier attitude to the portrayal of mental illness, maybe it’s just too American: whatever it was, it just wasn’t for me today.

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Programme cost: £1
Booking until 24th July
Note: there’s plenty of loud noises, balloons popping rather than gunshots but still loud!

5 Replies to “Review: Assassins, Union Theatre”

  1. Hooray. The Emperor's Clothes are exposed … tuneless and tedious, this production is strictly for diehard Sondheimistas who would worship the octogenarian's toenail clippings.

    Time to reflect on his magnificent career which divides into two parts – the tuneful, witty and clever work he produced on his Hammerstein-influenced 'good days' including WS Story, Gypsy, Follies, Company, Woods, Todd, Night Music versus the dark and incomprehensible 'other' side to his prolific schizophrenia: Passion, Pacific O, Merrily and particularly Assassins when you wonder if he was actually smoking crack.

  2. Well I loved it, just loved it. I've been singing the tunes (badly, I think they're quite hard) since I saw it at the Donmar 18 years ago. Yes, it's flawed, yes it's difficult to follow, yes it's it sags in places – but this is real, live, grown-up theatre – and at £15 a ticket! Wow.

  3. Memorable tunes ? Yes there are !
    Well I can't get "Everybody's Got The Right to Be Happy" out of my head – a week after seeing the show.l could happily sit through the full two hours again…and again. Two hours – no enterval – and I was spellbound.
    I agree that it mentioned Presidents (and assassins) I was not aware of. But shouldn't theatre be informative ?
    Every character was interesting (and brilliantly portrayed).
    Love to see a larger production.

  4. I don't disagree that theatre should be informative. But in its format, with all the characters crossing timelines and whatnot, it didn't really inform me enough about them. But then it is never going to be a historical play, so maybe it bears repeat viewing, to get over the initial confusion.
    Likewise with the music, it was the first time I had heard many of the songs and I cannot lie, I did not hear many tunes there, but give me the soundtrack on my iPod and I'm sure they'll eventually burrow their way into my subconscious.
    I wonder how many of the people who love it, can honestly say they loved it after the first time they saw it.

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