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  • Writer's picturemummyscrummie

'Assassins' at Chichester Festival Theatre

Yesterday evening, Mr Scrummie and I, leaving our two little ones in the hands of our trusty babysitter - and barely containing our excitement at the prospect of a night out! - jumped in the car and drove to Chichester, for a date night out at the theatre!

Now, for us, it's probably the perfect date; we met, many moons ago, when we were at drama school, and whilst we're not as 'luvvie' as some, we're both really passionate about theatre and we love nothing better than a date trip to see a show and then dissecting it together - add in to the mix that we've not been to the theatre together since before Little Miss was born (nearly six years ago!!) and you'll begin to have some understanding of the delirious state of excitement we'd got ourselves into!

We arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre in the early evening sunshine to find the Front of House decked out in red, white and blue Americana and the Terrace sporting its new street food truck, which was, for this production, serving solely all-American fare. Armed with our hotdogs and fries, we found a table inside, where the smooth sound of Country music greeted us, topping off this multi-sensory immersion in A Midsummer Evening's American Dream.

As we ate under a Star-Spangled Banner, we chatted about our expectations of the show, Mr Scrummie had seen a pared back studio production, years ago and I recalled to him that "Assassins" had in fact been one of my third-year shows at drama school.

Actually, it's probably one of my favourite musicals, and that's saying something, because I'm an unashamed MT nerd, and I pointed out to Mr Scrummie (again... my poor husband has probably heard me say this God knows how many times!) that I was yet to see a production that I felt actually 'got' what the show is about.

Anyhow, my point is that, between us, we knew the script, the book, the songs pretty darn well and were fascinated to see what CFT were going to 'do' with it all!

So, we walked into the House expecting to find the carnival setting of the script, and we were instead met with what, to all intents and purposes, was a Trump rally, complete with country rock songs blasting over the sound system and animal mascots wearing red, white and blue rhinestones. Huge video display screens informed us that a 'live stream' would begin shortly and Mexican (yep, it really was a Trump rally) waves rippled through the crowd at the encouragement of a lion-headed mascot.

And then, to encouraged applause, out came The Donald, or rather The Proprietor: tanned and quiffed, wearing a crisp blue suit and boasting a stars-and-stripes tie and pocket square; clearly Peter Forbes' Proprietor was not going to be a the ominous 'carney' type, instead, he was very clearly the front-page figure in a world of Politainment. And it was from that moment on, that I knew that Director, Polly Findlay did 'get' what this show was about and that Chichester's version of "Assassins" was going to be fantastic.

Image by Johan Persson, Chichester Festival Theatre

it was from that moment on, that I knew that Director, Polly Findlay did 'get' what this show was about and that Chichester's version of "Assassins" was going to be fantastic.

The Proprietor then called up 'members of the audience' and, one by one, up came the actors playing the titular assassins; but not yet as their infamous counterparts, instead, as the Americans would say, playing 'John or Jane Doe' type characters, called up at random, to have a go at acting the part of these historical figures: Carly Mercedes Dyer giggled her way forward, looking every bit the Chichester local in a khaki jumpsuit and sandals; Luke Brady emerged from the crowd in an ITALIA shirt and, playing the part of a reluctantly persuaded participator, Nick Holder made his way past my seat with several "What are you lookin' at?" type remarks growled at my fellow audience members.

Having this moment to establish the cast as playing normal, contemporary people 'trying on' not only the piles of clothes boxed up for each character , but the full roles of the assassins, was genius; immediately the time-bending, surreal nature of the show was established, and all of a sudden, everything that came out of the assassin's mouths, was simultaneously coloured with a modern filter.

Image by Johan Persson, Chichester Festival Theatre

In another departure from the script, we saw the role of the Balladeer split three-ways and - gone was the Stetson-wearing country singer/narrator; instead, we were presented with habitually microphone-clutching rolling news presenters: with Liam Tamne taking a 'main anchor' role, and the sycophantically grinning Lizzy Connolly and the sceptical Samuel Thomas becoming his CNN-like and Fox-esque colleagues.

This tweak worked so fantastically, not only because the Balladeer melodies were able to be reimagined as juicy three-part harmonies, but also because it made sense of and - like the John/Jane Doe call-up - reiterated, the omnipresent eyes and ears of the modern world; a world that was created vividly by Akhila Krishnan's BREAKING NEWS bulletins and 'LIVE from the scene' style coverage, played out over the big screens.

the music is a character in itself...

One of the things I adore about 'Assassins' is the way in which Sondheim 'visits' each moment in history, dipping his toe in the musical influences he finds along the way; in one act, we hear the patriotic sounds of Sousa marches, alongside catchy Vaudeville ditties; strident tarantellas within minutes of ballads that ooze Karen Carpenter vibes - and it all works. The music is a character in itself, serving to further caricature the assassins, to make them more likeable, and both more human and more ridiculous.

From start to finish, the sound of this show (the band, the arrangements, the performances) was phenomenal, I'd be hard pressed to pick 'a favourite moment' in particular, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the masterful way Amy Booth-Steel, Harry Hepple, Danny Mac and Sam Oladeinde crooned their way through the Straight Outta Disneyland (deceptively tricky) barbershop quartet that is the culmination of "Gun Song".

'Deceptively tricky', is perhaps not only an appropriate label for "Gun Song", but arguably for the show as a whole; I mean, how on Earth do you as a Company, persuade an audience to come with you on a plotless, time-travelling, amble through the attempted/successful assassinations of men, long-dead and linked together by nothing other than their Office? Well, having a killer cast (pun fullly-intended!) is probably a good place to start...

As I hinted at in an earlier paragraph, Peter Forbes was perfectly cast as the Proprietor; the head of the dysfunctional "family" of assassins, he oversees everything from his Oval Office desk and pours poison into suggestable ears, with such a recognisable, smiling (orange!) face, that you fully expect him to come out with "Fake news!" at any given moment.

Sam Oladeinde as Leon Czolgosz gave a nuanced performance, showcasing a beautiful singing voice and an ability to convey tiny shifts of emotion with crystalline clarity. With Oladeinde, colour-blind casting emboldens the message of the piece: in casting a black actor in the role, Charlotte Sutton and Christopher Worrall have ensured that a modern audience hears additional resonances when Czolgosz rebukes Guiteau for his ignorance of the plight of the labouring man.

Sam Oladeinde in rehearsal. Image by Johann Persson

Playing the Jodie Foster obsessive and devotee, John Hinckley Jnr, was Jack Shalloo and, in this actor's portrayal I saw the epitome of the black comedy nature of this musical; here is a man who society labelled as being insane, standing beneath a glitterball, belting his heart out, in a duet that could've been penned by Richard Carpenter and yet you like him. Gauche and goofy, Shalloo's Hinckley has you amiably smiling along at him, until you remember that this is a seriously deranged and deluded man and his story isn't that of the loveable baffoon.

When the real-life John Hinckley was imprisoned, he wrote to Ted Bundy, he tried to write to Charles Manson, and he received letters from Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme. In "Assassins", Sondheim and Weidman have the wannabe musician sing with Fromme, in this production, played by Carly Mercedes Dyer who, like her castmate Oladeinde, is cast in a 'colour-blind' way. And - again, this exciting approach to casting gives the audience a multi-faceted view: hearing a woman of colour deliver 'Squeaky' Fromme's lines about "the black man" really hit home in a whole new way.

I loved everything about Dyer's performance, she added a feistiness to Lynette Fromme that perhaps isn't usually there in the musical's interpretation of the hippy-dippy member of the Manson family, but it's there in bucket loads in Dyer's take; the predatory, competitive sing-off vibe to "Unworthy of Your Love" worked brilliantly and her partnership with Amy Booth-Steel as Sara Jane Moore was a delight to watch.

Amy Booth-Steel as Sara Jane Moore, Carly Mercedes Dyer as Lynette Fromme; image by Johan Persson

On Amy Booth-Steel: boy, oh boy, Amy is made for this part; she brings to Moore her trademark comic timing and innate 'funniness' but also a huge sense of naivety and vulnerability and, when you hear her reasoning behind her assassination attempt during the Finale, as an audience member, you feel sorry for her: behind the poor shooting, the shoes she's bought in the sale, the Bubbalo Bill frugality and her pining for "groovy" beads, Booth-Steel shows us a woman that desperately wants to be liked, loved, appreciated and wants to find who she is again.

Harry Hepple shined as Charles Guiteau, a part that is loaded with potential by Sondheim as, musically, Guiteau lives entirely in a sort of Vaudevillian/Old Broadway genre, but as much as the music gives an actor scope, it doesn't do the job for them and Hepple fully stepped up to the demands of the role - and demands they are! From finding notes out of thin air and segueing into modulations, to the physical effort needed to embody jazz-handing, 'tits and teeth' Guiteau up and down the scaffold. Hepple brought a wonderful campness to Guiteau which, when paired with his grit and blind belief, made for an all the more powerful punctuation mark to his execution.

I forget how many times a gun is shot, or a death is depicted in this show, but if every single one of those shots was a gun-shot SFX, and if every single murder was a bloody one, I think the audience would probably leave with PTSD. However, Gregory Clarke, Kate Waters and Richard Howell are clearly a force to be reckoned with!

Between them, they had the various shots and assassinations in the show played out in increasingly 'showbizzy' ways: in an explosion of confetti or suffixed with an elaborate bow, and this worked really well, again, underlining the farcical nature of the show.

Luke Brady worked well as Giuseppe Zangara - again, a bathetic character given a surprisingly heart-wrenching iteration in this production, and Danny Mac took on the role of John Wilkes Booth like a duck to water; he was particularly good in his scene with Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Samuel Thomas): charming and goading, mentorlike and luring; pitched somewhere between Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando!

But, perhaps one of the strongest performances of the night came from Nick Holder as the Father Christmas that no child wants to sit on the lap of, Samuel Byck. Grubby, sweaty and smeared with ketchup, Holder held the audience in the palm of his hand with his cassette tape monologues and they loved him for it; I saw people nodding along, agreeing with Byck's sentiments, relating to him; forgetting the would-be assassin; hearing the complaints of the man: the average Joe (who wants to hijack and plane and drive it into the White House...) who wants his Whopper served hot and the great and the good to acknowledge the existence of the little guy. It was expertly done by Holder and a delight to watch.

"Assassins" is a rhinestone encrusted evening of rolling news and showbiz spectacular and it packs as resounding a shot as any of its sound effects.

Don't walk, RUN to get tickets; it's on at Chichester until the 24th June 2023, you won't want to miss it.

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