Assassins @ Union Theatre, London

cast list
Glyn Kerslake, John Barr, Adam Jarrell, Joe Alessi, Nick Holder,Alison Larnder, Leigh McDonald, Paul Callen, Marc Joseph, Nolan Frederick,Lisa Stokke, Davis Brooks, Neil Canfer, Anthony Delaney, Hannah Bingham,Holly Easterbrook

directed by
Michael Strassen
Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre is no stranger to the works of StephenSondheim, having performed Sweeney Todd in 2008 and Companylast year.

To mark the composer’s eightieth birthday, it has turned its attention toAssassins, which first opened off-Broadway in 1990 and remains one ofSondheim’s darkest and most powerful works.

The show focuses on those who assassinated, or set out to assassinate,American Presidents. Through a series of ironic songs, such as Everybody’s Got The Right To Be Happy and scenes that see historical characters meetacross time and space, it explores the motivations of those who opted formurder. Although each individual presents their own reasons for theirbehaviour, it is ultimately the same story in every case.

Each assassin believes that they are taking a stand against oppression ofthe people, when they may only be searching for personal significance. WhenLincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, claims that he wasprotesting against Lincoln’s trampling of the South, the Balladeer retortsthat his real motivation was the bad reviews he was receiving.

In the compact Union Theatre, with the lighting kept low and a singlepresidential podium sufficing for the set, the notion of insignificancetakes on an added dimension as each wretched figure peers through the gloom.As Nixon’s would-be assassin, Samuel Byck (Nick Holder), moves towards hisfinal goal, the light may shine brightly upon his face but does not evenextend as far as his bald scalp which remains in darkness.

The production also succeeds in exploring the type of immortality that isimparted upon those who commit murder. As the ensemble sing Something JustBroke, which shows how everyone can remember the moment that John F.Kennedy was assassinated, the ambivalent nature of the song is exposed tothe full. As a man starts fondling a woman again within a few seconds ofreceiving the news, we realise that the assassination may have been deeplyaffecting in the moment, but possibly had little lasting effect onpeople.

From among the strong cast, Nolan Frederick as the Balladeer stands out,as he instils in this ‘everyman’ an all-seeing, all-knowingwherewithal. Frederickis a slick mover and imbues the figure with a strong air of showmanship ashe challenges those who kill, and reveals the ultimate futility of their’gesture’. Glyn Kerslake also impresses as John Wilkes Booth by making thecharacter both a nineteenth century actor and a more timeless being whotruly understands what precedent he has just set.

This production also enables Sondheim’s own genius to shine through. Itmakes Assassins feel just like a Shakespearean tragedy by ensuringthat it contains exactly the same measure of humour. Fair game to Sondheimfor inserting references to songs from West Side Story, a piece forwhich he wrote the lyrics, and for composing a musical that could only everprove him right. Of course, it is true that each assassin’s act ultimatelymade them immortal. It even led one of the greatest living musical theatrewriters to make a show all about them.

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