Young Critics Review Assassins

Wonderfully confusing

Sondheim’s musicals are often described as “confusing” and “hard to follow”. For example, Into the woods will forever be a mammoth task for any director to take on, due to the volume of characters and their complicated storylines. This makes it so hard for the audience to follow and believe. But I must say, Assassins really was the most “confusing” of the lot!

I shall re-phrase that. Nothing about the production was confusing, in fact it was rather wonderful. To start with the setting was immersive and really took me into a 1960’s Texan jazz bar, from the fine details of an upright, wooden piano to an old food machine, all surrounded by a rather large balcony decorated as the American flag, though this sounds confusing, it looked amazing. The setting was the better than what I could ever had envisioned, and so was the talent from all of the cast. Not to mention the incredible versatility of their skills whilst maintaining the most unforgettable character profiles, which I must mention the actress, Evelyn Hoskins did incredibly, playing the girlfriend of a psychopath, the humour was marvellous. It was comical. It always looked fantastic through amazing choreography. But at the end, it was a show of confusion.

The production ended and I could not think why I watched it. What was the purpose of the play. To highlight how prime ministers, and important profiles of government are at risk of assassinations? And why have we not been noticing its been happening for years? To raise awareness? But yet nothing about the show intended to horrify you. If anything it was tempting you to easily see into the assassinators mind, but why? The most emotional scene, and must I saw cleverest as I actually nearly felt something, was when all the assassinators of history so far until that point, were inside a young man’s mind, trying to convince him, to kill George Washington, oh sorry, I mean assassinate him. It was tormenting and created a very ill-minded picture. Once the young boy committed the sin, on a white wall played the actual scene of the death, the true event. It didn’t make me feel overly sad as I should at such a tragic event, and neither did it make me feel annoyed. In fact, I felt confused. Confused as to why my brain couldn’t pick an emotion and stay with it, but this scene was the closest to feeling anything, imagine the rest.

Maybe that was Sondheim’s intentions. To make you think like an assassin, after all, assassins cant have emotions can they? Otherwise they wouldn’t do what they do. The use of music throughout really added to the idea that we shouldn’t feel any emotion, with a lot of the music neither major or minor, it was always changing, and therefore we could never feel comfortable. One particular character ,played by Steve Simmonds, really did make me feel uncomfortable and very much had the same sinister personality traits as the Joker. One of his monologues was so difficult to watch because you could see he was driving himself mad and the aggression he portrayed was believable, due to the saliva pouring out of his mouth and the veins bulging from his neck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would recommend you watching this production. It’s wonderfully confusing, but it will leave you having had a very new theatre experience I bet you have never had before.

Betsey Bircumshaw

Assassins, directed by Bill Buckhurst, is a comedy-drama about the previous assassins of previous presidents ranging from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy. The music, supervised by Catherine Jayes, was a large part of making the play the comical masterpiece that it became. Even though Assasins was overall mostly a comical play, the serious side of the story was well understandable and worked with the humour as much as it could. However, the ending felt much too serious, dark and kind of put the humour off balance.

The play, based on a concept by Charles Gilbert Jr. and written by John Weidman, has been performed in Broadway Theater, and after watching, I can see why. The performance was first shown in December 1990, and, in my opinion, the basis of the story has aged quite well.

Nottingham Playhouse and The Watermill Theatre (Newbury) co-produced a new version which is the one that I watched. There have been 5 different versions of Assasins which were performed literally around the globe; however, I fully believe that, without watching them, all versions were good at the time of their release. One thing worth mentioning about the actors was that it surprised me how many of them could also play an instrument quite complicatedly. I’d go as far as to say that I think I saw every actor play an instrument at least once, whether that is guitar, trumpet, piano or flute.

At the very start, all actors (that we would later know as the assassins or attempted assassins of the presidents in this play) go on stage and grab a gun from a vending machine stating ‘shoot a president to win a prize’. This is probably what they thought and what they believed was their own philosophy – but however, they would never get any sort of prize. This is a sign of, although some had their own reasons, they were all in one way or the other delusional.

The plot was that all 9 assassins were given a bit of backstory to why they attempted/did what they did. Assassins plays with different feelings of people to make the backstory believable and entertaining to the audiences widespread of feelings and personality.

For example:

The character we will later know as Johnny shoots a picture of Abraham Lincon (signifying the actual president rather than just a picture on a wall). A red spotlight covers the painting.
A song later plays asking why Jhonny ‘did it’. He explains that the country was doomed with Abraham as a president and that he did it for the greater good of the whole country itself. He also explains ‘I’ve given up my life for one-act’; and not long after kills himself.

I found this sad as he believed what he was doing was good and did not want to go to prison and consequently killed himself. However, at the same time, I heard a few people laughing/chuckling and although I can now slightly see the humour behind it, at the time I fully did not. This is what I mean by “the audiences widespread feelings and personality.”.

The mixed colour of lighting used throughout was used expertly; for example, the blue and gold light contrast separated the characters quite well in one scene. I don’t see disco balls in plays at all any more but the one used was well executed and worked with the playfull and success theme that was being made. And at one point a nice outside, midnight atmosphere was created with all of the lights off except one illuminating only the person there.

The simplicity of the set made it attachable to certain atmospheres and almost all worked perfectly. It kept this up for almost all of the play even though the surrounding never changed (apart from at the end where a wall turned around into a different wall).

Nottingham Playhouse did not hold back on props and used them either efficiently to the story or to the use of humour. Fortunately, though there was not an overuse where it would have been hard to keep track of all the things on stage.

The acting of different feelings of the characters was on point; particularly anxious, crazy and upset. Even the jolly acting – of which there was – was enjoyable, interesting and full of movement. I and the audience laughed many times. I especially liked the 2 actors – Sara Poyzer and Evelyn Hoskins, who played the women who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Funnily enough, they were one of the only assassinators not able to kill their target president; but the laughs that they gave me killed ME!

The 9 songs always went with their corresponding scene and the lighting came into the positive sequence aswell. The stage and props – as well as instruments – where used well with what idea or feeling they were trying to make. I thoroughly enjoyed Assasins and I can see why they remade it so many times. It’s such an incredible and hilarious watch and I would definitely suggest you go and watch it.

Elliott A Brake

Tonight, the night of the 5th of November I got to witness the amazing performance of Assassins directed by Bill Buckhurst which has truly been a night to remember. Stephen Sondheim would definitely be proud as the harmonies were consistently on key, the dancing though simplistic was profound and the multi-talented ensemble’s transitions from instrument to instrument were unexpected, but so smooth to watch that as an audience member you didn’t even realise what was happening! As the orchestra was onstage during majority of the scenes that progressed this meant that they were never out of place and definitely felt like a necessary part of the stage as they added to the setting of the town multi-rolling the townsfolk of Texas. It also meant that the stage was always busy with action so you always had something new to look at.

During the opening scenes you got to see all the performers on stage including the orchestra who blended in so well into the performance. It begun with everyone playing instruments and doing choreography in a line at the same time! As majority of the cast was actor-muso it was spectacular to see.
As there was no interval it was interesting to see how the multiple different Assassins occupied the stage and made the audience empathise with all of them and emotionally relate with them murderers or as they would say “we are not murderers we are Assassins”. The difference being that their legacy lives on. It was quite unusual being put in a position where murder was a spectacle but Sondheim never does fail to turn the vulgar into the Blasé and Buckhurst executed this production very well.

Some of my favourite parts included the spectacular performance of Eddie Elliot playing Charles Guitto who defiantly, in fact lived out the real life Assassins fantasy of a spectacle death. This was shown by an almost showbiz style hanging scene which had me struggling to “look on the bright side” of his death as by the end of it I was all too emotionally attached!

Rachel Hamilton

Assassins is a musical adaptation surrounding the stories of the world’s best-known gun men and women. Making their way into the history books by shooting, or attempting to shoot, Presidents of the United States, their tales of woe and feelings of injustice are whipped into a somewhat frenzied production with music by renowned composer, Stephen Sondheim. John Weidman’s book (the original concept by Charles Gilbert Jr.) offers a parallel in terms of style and structure and sometimes surreal madness to his other most notable work; writing for Sesame Street.

From start to finish, Assassins is a cacophony of sound, movement, characters and colour. Musicians are situated around the stage but they don’t stay static for long, moving deftly around the main characters who cover every inch of the space, dancing and singing seemingly all to their own song but somehow also in well-choreographed unison. Director, Bill Buckhurst, has clearly put a great deal of time and effort into the production levels and you are gripped from the first to the last by the sheer amount of continuous action.

The chaotic nature of the show is punctured nicely with moments of real story telling where one character will explain why they wanted to assassinate their President. A particularly funny two hander between Evelyn Hoskins and Nottingham born Sara Poyzer had the audience laughing out loud. In a show mostly dominated by male characters, it is great to see the most comedic lines awarded to the female actors.

The set is a feast for the eyes; a Texan saloon vibe created by Simon Kenny includes different levels for the cast of fifteen to play with and interchangeable scenery to depict the various narratives. Costume is a periodic mix lending the show an old-school feel and the lighting cleverly highlights every scene with glamorous flashing bulbs and moody fades in-between scenes.

Overall, this production was not one I had any preconceived feelings about having never seen the show before but I found it to have a Chicago-esque feel about it; an electrifying ensemble dancing and singing along to tales of murder. If you are a Sondheim fan, this is one for you.

Joanna Hoyes

Assassins Review – Nottingham Playhouse

Assassins was like a bullet to the head in a surprisingly entertaining way: it took me a week to realise how much I enjoyed the inundation of characters, stories and songs. But director Bill Buckhurst absolutely did not muffle the shot, with a show hilariously aware of its own absurdity, and yet still giving me chills as the I got a disturbing glance into the minds of murderers.

Assassins made the perfect anti musical, with its complete message saying when the American dream fails just “come and shoot a president”. Every aspect of the show had this in mind; from the faded star and stripe set design, to the hilarious light and sound effects used when a president was shot (or, in some cases, not). Everything was a slightly warped American stereotype, which fitted perfectly. Lillie Flynn embodied this perfectly as the Balladeer, with her checked shirt, banjo, exaggerated optimism (and flawless singing voice) that juxtaposed the subject matter pricelessly. It was her lack of awareness at all of the assassinations that made it one of the most consistently funny pieces to watch.

As a dark comedy, this story is not one you are supposed to agree with the characters on, yet each “villain” performed with such conviction that I actually sympathised with them. The perfect example of this was Steve Simmonds (playing Samuel Byke) who was terrifyingly realistic at his unhinged role, to the point where I was paralysed with fear at his monologue. But despite the unnerving dynamic and tone changes within his voice, I still found myself laughing: a mean feat to deliver from a psychopath. However, this was not the only stand out performance of the night: I don’t think a single audience member wasn’t giggling at Evelyn Hoskins’ and Sara Poyzer’s scenes (which will never make me look at a KFC bucket the same way again!). All in all, while some of the characters were a little one dimensional, I think each one was memorable and truly gave the show a bursting energy throughout.

Of course no Sondheim musical is complete without catchy choruses and lyrical solos, which this production provided with ease and style: I couldn’t help but keep singing “look on the brightside” at “The Ballad of Guiteau”. This paired with the over the top choreography played with tension ingeniously as Guiteau frolicked up and down the stairs to the noose he would eventually meet his demise within. But what truly impressed me about this scene was its use of imagery- an American flag over a noose- perhaps this is an insight into the fractured perspective of the assassins, perhaps it has a wider political meaning, or perhaps it is simply just to make us laugh, but it is this ambiguity which leaves the image engrained in me.

I think Assassins is one of those rare musicals where you really aren’t meant to feel any connection, but really do; I felt close to the action (particularly with instruments on set) and yet part of a grand scheme (especially towards the end where the Zapruder film was played and the whole cast rallied around Lee Harvey Oswald),so much that we too were a part of these violent but glorious endeavours. A strange conclusion to reach, but of course a bullet to the head was never going to be simple.

Elspeth White