2nd Company Productions take a fantastically well-aimed shot at the Sondheim classic.
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Over twenty years after its first showing as an Off-Broadway Production, Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical Assassins comes to Islington, revived by 2nd Company Productions. The show focuses on various men and women throughout history who have either assassinated or attempted to assassinate an American President. Characters span a century from Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald who shot J.F.K. Yes, we know that’s officially alleged, but this is a musical.
Each assassin tells his or her story usually in the form of a musical number, often accompanied by a Balladeer who acts as narrator. The Balladeer is played with tremendous charm by Johnjo Flynn who also does a great flipside to this role when playing Lee Harvey Oswald, a man plagued by demons and failure. The Balladeer is a classically handsome, upbeat, squeaky clean, all-American, somewhat macho-camp, all-singing, all-dancing kind of guy. He first comes onstage to mock assassin number one: John Wilkes Booth - actor, Confederate sympathiser and general racist. Booth earnestly presents his case against Lincoln only to be joined and tormented by the Balladeer who belittles Booth by putting all his actions down to his personal problems and bad reviews.
Assassins does not judge its characters as good or bad whatever their ideology may be. The assassins say (or more often than not, sing) their piece, each giving their reasons for why they intend to kill the president, but it’s their personalities the production focuses on rather than their political beliefs. Booth is played as charming, charismatic, quite full of himself and a spiritual father to all the other assassins, often visiting his fellow killers to give them encouragement or plant the whole assassination idea in their heads. Charles Guiteau is a complete parody of himself, pompous, effeminate and ridiculously self-obsessed. Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme is a spoilt brat. Leon Czolgosz is a tortured and exploited working class Polish boy besotted with Emma Goldman. Czolgosz is played with total poignancy by Alexander Forsyth as a man almost broken by the shitty conditions under which he lives. He’s our favourite, probably because we identify with him or like to think we do. Forsyth does a wonderful job of filling his eyes with pain to convey Czolgosz’s character and in our humble opinion it’s hot. Guiseppe Zangara’s eyes on the other hand are almost bursting out of his head as he is portrayed as a wide-eyed psychopath by Padraig Beathnach. Each assassin is played brilliantly and somehow given depth, so while they may be boiled down to a single word description here they rarely come across as completely one-dimensional.
The production is completely compelling, one of those musicals that makes you feel alive, which is slightly ironic. The musical numbers are absolute classics and performed wonderfully and with total verve by the cast. The Ballad of Guitea is definitely a highlight. During this number Charles Guitea (religious loon who assassinated James Garfield) is led to the gallows full of smug self-importance, resting assured that he is acting directly under the instruction of God, while being backed by an ensemble of Christian worshippers in white robes singing along as he’s being led up to be hung. It looks and sounds amazing. It’s the unlikely combination of upbeat music and singing with such subject matter that makes Assassins so compelling and at times so darkly funny. From the sunny sounding opening number of Everybody’s Got the Right with it’s ‘everybody’s got the right to be happy’ refrain, to the same reprise at the end of the play, when each assassin is stood in a line raising and pointing their weapons at the audience in unison you can’t help but be captivated. Funny, dark, playful, enthralling and with musical numbers to die for (ha ha, sorry), go watch.
Book tickets here, runs until 8 April at The Pleasance, Islington.
Words: Len Lukowska
Image: Left to right: Johnjo Flynn as Lee Harvey Oswald and Martin Dickinson as John Wilkes Booth, www.francisloney.com