It’s a commonplace to reflect on America’s obsession with violent murder. At times I wondered whether Assassins might be participating in this obsession rather than examining it intelligently, but flaws in the script do not undermine the energy and virtuosity of this production. The premise is simple: a fairground game in which people are rewarded for killing the US President attracts assassins (both successful and unsuccessful) from throughout the ages, from ‘Manson family’ member Lynette Fromm to John Wilkes Booth. The fairground premise is (thankfully) not prominent in most of the production, only apparent in the opening number and on some exquisitely hand-painted signs. The set as a whole deserves substantial praise, creating a microcosm of twisted Americana with its wood panelling, intricate stairways and scattered posters.
Despite the bland score (apparently intended to reflect the prevailing pop trends of the decade in which the action takes place, although I didn’t notice) the cast excel musically, without a single weak link. Even Milo Callaghan, in what was technically the production’s only non-singing role, held his own vocally. It was, however, in his semi-improvised monologues that he really shone, at one point (in a masterstroke of staging) sitting at the front of the stage behind a prop steering wheel. Smaller scenes like this made for the funniest moments in the play: Callaghan’s imitation of Richard Nixon (his character’s intended target), and the comic interplay between Alice Jay and Lydia Pickett as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. Both Jay and Pickett are superb character actors who never went for cheap laughs but allowed comedy to arise naturally from this unlikely meeting between the only two women to have attempted to kill the President.
In the larger scenes, the play’s tonal unevenness was more distracting. The script veers from the pathos of John Wilkes Booth’s suicide to the carnivalesque framing device. This contrast is obviously intentional, but was more uncomfortable than amusing. The same went for Charles Guiteau’s suicide, which closes the first act on an equivocal note: he strides up to a noose at the top of the stage whilst singing and smiling broadly. As an audience we are not sure whether to feel sympathy for this attempted murderer, or to laugh, and I doubt whether the production knew which effect it strove for. A play which depends for its comic effects on trivialising murder comes under visible strain when it attempts to make serious points about the pain caused by presidential assassinations, such as in the penultimate song ‘Something Just Broke’. It’s a musical, of course, but one questions whether a musical was the best means of tackling such hefty subject matter.
Whatever its flaws, despite its two hour runtime (and my 30 second attention span), I was never bored by Caroline Yu’s production. It may not explore the dark underside of the American dream, but it’s a lot of fun.