Sondheim’s musical revue ‘Assassins’, revived by the Nottingham Playhouse in collaboration with the Watermill Theatre is now on at the Playhouse until November 16th. One of Sondheim’s lesser known works, this tells the stories of people who made successful or unsuccessful attempts to assassinate a president of the United States.
Simon Kenny’s innovative set gives the show a poignant, satirical edge. Featuring a gun vending machine and the deteriorating, American flag walls, it was evidently a commentary on a modern-day America. However, this is done tastefully and does not seem shoe horned or out of place within the show, only supplementing the action on stage. The somewhat overcrowded stage coped well with by Ben Ormerod’s lighting design and the audience were seldom distracted from the central action of the show.
I’m always excited when entering a theatre and seeing that the musicians are positioned on stage, it’s always disappointing when they’re hidden away from the audience in an orchestra pit. I was even more thrilled when it became apparent in this production that all the music would be provided by the actors themselves. The musicians are even incorporated into choreography. It is a true feat for the cast and takes their talent onto a whole new level of impressive and is unlike anything I have seen in mainstream musical theatre before. This merging of cast and band gives Buckhurst’s adaptation the energetic twist that Sondheim’s somewhat lacklustre show needed and is definitely the crowning feature of the production. However, this casting choice no doubt comes at the expense of the sung parts of the show, which I found disappointing. More than one attempt at an American accent are pitiful and distracting… one would expect better in a show where Americanism is so central to the plot.
A highlight of this show is Steve Simmonds, who plays the deranged drunkard Samuel Byck, and whose characterisation is watertight. When he isn’t performing emotionally intense, yet hilariously funny monologues in a Santa costume, Simmonds is at the drum kit – I couldn’t help but think how exhausting it must have been! I was also particularly impressed by Evelyn Hoskins’ and Sara Poyzer’s duo. While the former’s comedic timing as the attention seeking teenager is to be envied, the latter’s portrayal as the former FBI agents housewife is sophisticated and masterfully crafted. Both make a credible attempt at the accent, unlike many of their fellow castmates.
Lillie Flynn, playing the Balladeer, I can only assume is supposed to represent the patriotic and naïve American. While her characterisation is unclear and dull, the majority of her lines are delivered in RP with only an occasional American twang. On top of this, her sung performance leaves much to be desired. I struggled to see how this character, and indeed Flynn’s interpretation, added anything to the plot of the show or to this adaptation.
Overall, Buckhurst’s production is both entertaining and purposeful in the current political climate. The band-cast amalgamation alone makes this show worth seeing, but Sondheim’s impressive score and unique characters (despite a slightly confusing and incongruous plot) make it a fun, interesting and entertaining night out for musical lovers and the general public alike.