There was little doubt that when Chichester Festival Theatre announced that they would be staging Sondheim’s Assasins for their 2023 season that it would be something rather special and last night this proved to be more than true. Assassins has never been one of his greatest hits but CFT have proved that it is one of his greatest achievements. For certain it is no Sound Of Music, which they will present later this season, with popular songs and popular appeal from start to finish, and with the title Assassins this should come as no surprise.

Assassins dates back to 1990 and before, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert Jr. What possessed them to tackle the dark story of America’s famous Assassins of presidents, successful or attempted, is unclear but the result is a bizarrely entertaining, a deeply provocative piece that twists the perception of murder and gun crime around and momentarily suggests that their acts are heroic. Of course they are not, but what the work does is make you reconsider where one might take hatred, anger and that sense of being worthless and ignored.

The staging here is brilliantly centred on the overtly red white and blue, over the top presentation of US political conventions, crazily dressed cheerleaders, not unlike sporting archetypes, whip up the audience with dancing, Mexican waves and a general frenzy of whooping and cheering set against a soundtrack of middle of the road rock. This is middle America being driven by political machinations and nothing could be more chilling in 2023 when we see an ex president being taken to trial and an ex prime minister leaving parliament in disgrace and doing so without grace. And much of this taking place whilst we sit in the star spangled theatre.

Assassins is very much a play with music rather than a musical and as such requires a cast that can handle the dark and dangerous text as well as deliver the songs, and when it comes to songs there are perhaps fewer than one might expect. Sondheim could of course pen a great song but here the  work is musically far more complex, dare I suggest that it is more operatic in form with recurring themes and long passages of lyrical exposition. Don’t be put off, Sondheim’s mastery of music and lyrics makes this the most entertaining element of this piece and here it is delivered by a team of news broadcasters three grinning besuited pretty boys and a fabulous pink suited blonde. And the device of making the narrators part of the news machine is both funny and poignant in this era of fake news and media manipulation.

Against all this we are presented with the infamous, those who tried and those who have succeeded in seeing off American Presidents, the weirdly and in my view wrongly named leaders of the free world. Amy Booth-Steel is brilliant as housewife would be assassin Sara Jane Moore especially in scenes with Carly Mercedes Dyer as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme exploring their parallel relationships with Charles Manson. Luke Brady as Zangara attempted assassin of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt is chillingly impressive. Harry Hepple as Guiteau, assassin of President James A. Garfield is startlingly and scarily camp right up to his execution, which is superbly staged. Nick Holder plays the disillusioned Samuel Byck, attempted assassin of President Richard Nixon and has some of the very best moments of the whole piece as he lopes and staggers around the stage and into the audience dressed as a degraded Santa Claus. Danny Mac is John Wilkes Booth, perhaps the most iconic assassin, if assassins can be seen as icons, but certainly the second most infamous, and killer of Abraham Lincoln, and he proves that he is an imposing dramatic talent with a stunning voice.  Sam Oladeinde is Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley, a killer played beautifully with a gentle sense of innocence and Jack Shalloo plays Hinckley who tried but failed to polish off Ronald Reagan. Peter Forbes is The Proprietor and the embodiment of American politics at its most show biz best.

Finally the spectres of the company encounter the sad and disillusioned figure of Lee Harvey Oswald, played here with the gentlest touch by Samuel Thomas as it leads up to perhaps the most famous assassination of all, the one that for many of the audience will be within living memory.

The entire ensemble is finely tuned, note and step perfect from start to finish and the band equally impressive as they deliver Sondheim’s often complex score.

Director Polly Findlay has done an exceptional job here, lifting one of Sondheim’s less popular and less acclaimed works to a new and heightened status, Lizzie Clachan’s design is perfect in every sense and Richard Howell’s lighting is as good as it gets – stunning!

Assassins is without doubt a difficult piece, Sondheim at his most ambitious maybe, and certainly without the glitter and glamour of Follies, the magic of Into The Woods or the dark humour of Sweeney Todd, but Chichester Festival has raised the bar with this striking new production and maybe, just maybe, opened the way for us to enjoy some of his less popular but equally exciting work – bring on Pacific Overtures and Roadshow please.

Andrew Kay

9 June

Chichester Festival Theatre

Rating: ★★★★★

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