ASSASSINS
New End Theatre, London NW3
Opened 10 July, 1997

In 1990, the original production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins played in a New York theatre which seated around 150 people. The reduction in scale to fit it into the New End Theatre in Hampstead, whilst appreciable, is therefore not entirely ludicrous.

In fact, Sam Buntrock's production for New Light Theatre Company is more than respectable all round, with a cast including the fine Peter Straker and a couple of actors (Garth Bardsley and Fiona Dunn) from the British regional première of the show in Derby, as well as Paul Keating, last seen in the title role of Tommy. The atmosphere onstage is generally intimate rather than cramped, and Caroline Humphris's pared-down keyboard and percussion arrangements (occasionally augmented by the trumpet-playing of Stephen Watts as the Proprietor) never seem insufficient. Presumably Andrew Newey as John Hinckley Jr. cannot actually play guitar, as the lead instrumental voice in the song "Unworthy Of Your Love" is once again supplied by Humphris with an acoustic-guitar sound on her synthesizer. Nevertheless, the number remains a terrific subversion of romantic-duet conventions, as Hinckley and "Squeaky" Fromme (Dunn), the failed assassins of Presidents Reagan and Ford respectively, sing their hearts out to pictures of their beloveds, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.

The show's high points remain in fine fettle: Sharon Eckman gets the lioness's share of the laughs as Sara Jane Moore, the apple-pie mom who also had a pop at Ford, although Dunn's manic jabbering makes a particularly strong double-act with her. Straker's Charles Guiteau grander and more flourishing than I have ever seen the character ascends the theatre's central aisle to the scaffold after disposing of President Garfield; his show-stopping number is exaggerated by numerous handshakes with audience members as he thanks them for "coming to my hanging". It seems a little strange to have inserted the additional number "Something Just Broke" at the opening of the show rather than in the Oswald-Kennedy sequence, but the hiccup this generates in pacing is soon forgotten.

I was one of the minority of critics not especially impressed by Keating's performance as Tommy last year, and his portrayal of the Balladeer contains similar weaknesses; he has an excellent singing voice, but his characterisation once again inclines towards truculence, and his acting technique is as yet only partly formed at present, when he wishes to seem to be doing less, he simply does less. Nor does Watts differentiate much between his main role as the Proprietor and his cameos as Presidents McKinley and Ford. These, however, are flaws in the production rather than outright failures. Each successive production of Assassins continues to demonstrate just how mistaken was the original poor opinion of it as a musical portrait of the dark side of the American Dream.

One thing puzzled me, though. The stage was hung round with caricatures of the presidents who constituted the assassins' real and intended victims. The group included Bill Clinton. Does the company know something we do not? Surely that would be taking a publicity stunt a little too far...

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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