Well, we made it Constant Reader… end of 2014 and here I am at the last show at Christmas. I couldn't have done it without you.
The last show of 2014 was in one of my favourite theatres and was one of my favourite shows. If maybe not in this production...
The show, written in 1990, was a departure for Sondheim - in a career already defined by departures from the norm - in that it was a non-linear, ensemble piece set in an imagined fairground shooting gallery, where the nine living and dead people who attempted or succeeded in killing the President of the United States gather to relive the circumstances that brought them to their murderous deed.
Gathered together across the years they seek to justify their actions as Sondheim's score and John Weidman's book seek to understand how their twisted logic and sense of failure led them to do what they did. It's a musical that is also a scathing polemic on the curdled idea of The American Dream and Sondheim willingly takes a backseat in several major scenes giving Weidman the space to explore the characters without the necessity for a song to interrupt the flow.
One by one they step forward into the spotlight that they felt was denied them: John Wilkes Booth, vainglorious actor who shot Lincoln to avenge the South; Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to shoot Roosevelt in his hatred for the capitalists who he had to slave for ruining his physical and mental health; would-be Anarchist Leon Czolgosz who shot President McKinley to also avenge the masses; deranged Charles Guiteau who shot President Garfield because he did not receive the post of Ambassador to France which he felt he was entitled to.
John Hinckley who attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan so Jodie Foster would notice him; misfit Samuel Byck who attempted to crash a plane into Nixon's White House; Manson acolyte Lynette Frome who attempted to kill Gerald Ford to publicise Manson's world vision and Sara Jane Moore a confused woman desperate to do something radical to be noticed. And the ninth, of course, is Lee Harvey Oswald who, in Weidman's chilling scene, is persuaded by the others to be the assassin that will define them all. If the greatest ambition for any American is to rise to be President, how much more famous is it to be the person who kills them?
It's all there in Weidman's excellent book and Sondheim's glorious score which pastiches various American musical forms: rousing Souza marches, folk ballads, high-stepping cakewalk, pop ballads - sadly the ubiquitous director Jamie Lloyd obviously feels that the material is not clear enough and has given us a production which starts so ramped-up and overwrought that it swamps the material. This leads to several of the cast giving performances that are almost grotesque in their clanging over-emphasis.
Soutra Gilmour's threatening and creepy fairground set also overdoes the emphasis and again suffocates the work's quiet despair. Mind you, it provided an amusing moment at the start when the ghastly Proprietor popped out of the mouth of a large papier-mâché clown's head and the woman next to it shrieked loudly in alarm. Oh and I did love Gilmour's visual trick of showering red ticker-tape on the 'successful' assassins.
Ah, the Proprietor. He is there to introduce the assassins and to play various characters within their scenarios. But here the role is hideously over-played by Simon Lipkin who literally gasps the opening number "Everybody's Got The Right" while heavy-breathing through his mouth. What the fuck was director Lloyd thinking about? Sondheim's lyrics went for nothing as he sounded like someone trying to sing while having an asthmatic seizure.
His truly ghastly performance is mirrored in an over-the-top performance from Stewart Clarke who bellows his lines in "How I Saved Roosevelt" so much I was over-the-moon when he was finally electrocuted. Sadly this air of high-pitched desperation affected Catherine Tate's woozy Sara Jane Moore which she played as if to an audience of hard-of-hearing patrons in the Albert Hall. It was a grotesque performance of a woman who was anything but, just very, very confused.
Again the heavy-breathing-through-the-mouth acting style affected Harry Morrison who played John Hinckley as hysterically as a drag act who had just had his wig pulled off. This was shown off to alarming effect in his duet with Carly Bawden's Lynette Frome. Sondheim's glorious subversion of the typical musical love song has Hinckley and Frome singing of their unworthiness of someone's love - only this time it's to pictures of Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Morrison's over-wrought delivery was instantly forgotten when Bawden started singing - a pure, soprano voice just singing… a rarity in this production.
However, it was not all ghastly - some performers fought through the unimaginative staging to make an impression. US actor Aaron Tveit was an impressive Booth, his preening vanity sitting on him like an ever-present opera cloak and he shone in the afore-mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald scene. The always dependable Jamie Parker played The Balladeer, the musical's voice of reason who counterpoints the assassin's protestations with asides on how they didn't change anything, they didn't get what they wanted etc. However when the assassins attack him during their clarion call "Another National Anthem", he emerges from the scrum dressed as Lee Harvey Oswald, ready to be seduced by Booth into his moment of fate.
Andy Nyman was fun as the clearly deranged Charles Guiteau and made the most of his solo cakewalk number, clapping and dancing his way up the gallow stairs, he even breaks out dancing in mid-air after his lengthy hanging! I also liked David Roberts as the confused and lonely Leon Czolgosz, he was particularly good in the small but telling scene with Emma Goldman where he struggles to make a connection with a real radical visionary.
As I said, Carly Bawdon was excellent as the angrily obsessed Lynette Frome and at the other end of the spectrum, Mike McShane was blistering fierce as Sam Byck who has two monologues in which we see an angry, disturbed man slowly coming apart. The interesting thing is that Weidman does give Byck genuine concerns - what Weidman and Sondheim are saying is that it's right to get angry at injustices, it's how you react that is important.
Neil Austin's lighting design was, as always, almost a star in itself and the orchestra gave the score a vibrancy not always echoed by the cast.
I came out of the theatre shattered at the sheer intensity of it all so I guess Jamie Lloyd would say he succeeded but I would seriously debate that.