Assassins @ Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

cast list
Ian Bartholomew
David Burrows
Billy Carter
Richard Colvin
Matt Cross
Hadley Fraser
James Gillan
Penny Layden
Gerard Murphy
Matt Rawle
Josie Walker
Max Restaino

directed by
Nikolai Foster

Concerning as it does those individuals that have assassinated or tried to assassinate a US President, John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s quirky musical seems like a very contemporary and relevant piece to produce in a climate dominated by the fear of terrorism.

And indeed Assassins is a relatively contemporary play, first performed in 1990, it only made its Broadway debut in 2004. However, the world has changed significantly since John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, and the myth of the great American assassin shown here already feels like a thing of the past.

Sheffield Theatres’ savagely entertaining production leaves you wondering just why this long line of driven killers are now a dying breed; and furthermore to consider what new evils might be about to take their place.

The play features nine of history’s most notorious would-be assassins as they desperately encourage each other to maintain their mythos for a new generation – by (of course) killing another American President.

On an imposing stage, resembling a dilapidated carnival taking place somewhere in Dante’s vision of hell, a satanic proprietor – sung devilishly by the magnificent David Burrows – draws the assassins to his bar and sets them off on their historic journeys.

First up is John Wilkes Booth, assassin to Abraham Lincoln, played (again superbly) by Hadley Fraser. The production then flits back and forth through time before closing with Lee Harvey Oswald – as he is harangued by the rest of the assassins to take out JFK.

Mixing pitch-black humour with rousing songs and an ear-battering barrage of gunfire, Assassins is a strangely unsettling experience, especially as the constant leaps between different points in history mean that it never settles into a comfortable rhythm. The contrast between the jolly choreography of the musical numbers and the overarching scenes of execution are exploited brilliantly, especially the executions of the assassins themselves. Both a hanging and an electrocution are gruesomely carried out on stage. In contrast, the presidents that do meet their maker do so in the wings.

Amid a strong cast, Gerard Murphy stands out for his performance as Samuel Byck, wannabe assassin to Richard Nixon. Byck’s tape-recorded threats, sent to Sondheim’s friend Leonard Bernstein (familiar to anyone that has seen The Assassination of Richard Nixon) provide a central monologue to the production. Whilst the other assassins cling desperately to their dreams of fame and political influence, Byck alone is unable to hide from the spectre of his own failings.

With Nikolai Foster’s production, Sheffield Theatres have created another powerful and effective piece of theatre. It is however rather let down by its final scenes – as Oswald prepares to assassinate JFK. As a character Oswald is paper-thin figure, his only motive within the play is to satisfy the cravings of history’s other assassins (which at least helps to get around the question of whether or not he did it in the first place). Unlike the other participants, there’s a feeling that Oswald is only featured in the play begrudgingly. He may be the most famous assassin, but to the writers he’s by no means the most interesting – which is something of a let-down as the production has built up to his big moment.

These days, the concept of a lone warrior taking out the US President seems incredibly unlikely given the enormous wall of security that surrounds a 21st century political leader. It’s simply not possible anymore to take a shot at a US President as he walks past you in a public park. The assassins are still out there though, but nowadays the killing of multiple civilians has substituted the death of a single world leader. When you look at it like that, it’s almost hard not to share the perverse nostalgia of the characters in Assassins.

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