The Menier has time and time again proved itself to be the centre of all things Sondheim in London. Add current directorial man of the moment Jamie Lloyd into the mix and you know that this notoriously inaccessible piece will not only find itself an audience but will be something very special to.
Walking into the atmospheric gloom of the Menier’s stunningly dressed circus freak show setting the bar is set pretty high right away. This is a show that oozes quality and never lets up on style. The substance is less consistent though. The masterly Sondheim never disappoints musically. The songs and the lyrics are as intelligent, witty and damn right clever as ever. The book however is less successful in its profile of the perpetrators of US Presidential assassinations and assassination attempts. Despite it being a fascinating insight into the political history of the US it is ultimately a darker tale of mentally disturbed and depression laden heart ache.
Each of the characters has so many issues that it at times becomes a drudge to watch and without a credible narrative running through it somehow never quite engages. Each Assassin takes their turn to tell their own tale of loss, confusion, angst and impending madness, but we never really know if we should be feeling sympathy, anger or dislike towards them. They are certainly not people with whom we can warm to.
Each of the cast fully commit in an astonishing way however, giving the piece a real intensity in the close proximity of the compact Menier. Simon Lipkin as the Proprietor does sterling work to bind the gang of ghostly assassins together. Half ring master and half narrator Lipkin broods his way around the stage making full use of some great make-up to add even further peculiarity to his character.
Aaron Tveit makes a charismatic and bold show of the oldest of the assassins John Wilkes Booth, one of the few to be successful in his attempt by killing Abe Lincoln. Andy Nyman plays a genial Charles Guiteau with a desperately dark underbelly who comes to an uncomfortably gruesome end onstage in front of our eyes whilst Mike McShane has a scary intensity about his Samuel Byck, a seeming failure in life as well as in his attempt to fly a plane into the White House.
The terrific designs by Soutra Gilmour match the intensity of the evening perfectly and are as much part of the ensemble as the performing company. Weathered, damaged and warped the stage is dominated by bits of broken fairground rides, in particular a large clowns head, constantly watching and constantly laughing.
With little in the way of light this is drainingly dark work that has flashes of brilliance, but also has moments of self indulgence. The subject matter is fascinating and the execution is first class, but you will come out feeling as though you have spent the evening in the very darkest recesses of somebody’s slightly scary head, perhaps Sondheim’s, perhaps an assassin’s. Either way this is a challenging night but not without its rewards.