Arts Reviews

Assassins @ Nottingham Playhouse

Assassins is a play for these times. Despite the musical being first performed nearly thirty years ago, it’s examination of the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents is bruising in its exploration of the dark side of the American Dream, the power of celebrity and, perhaps more relevant than ever, the culture of gun violence.

Bill Buckhurst’s adaptation is shrouded in symbolism. Joey Hickman’s cool and confident Proprietor hands each assassin a gun from a vending machine, enticed with the promise they can win a prize. This carnival theme, apt for today’s political circus, is continued throughout. Simon Kenny’s imaginative design makes the presidents’ faces arcade targets, a style perfectly complemented by Ben Ormerod’s red, white and blue flashing lights which brought lightness (literally) to the darkest elements of the show.

“A haunting image of the duality of the American Dream”

Kenny douses the small set in the American flag to the point where, in a more harrowing scene, one of the assassins is hanged with a patriotic noose: a haunting image of the duality of the American Dream. This musical plays beautifully on light and shade.

Scenes of humour are contrasted with violent explosions and gunshots, none more so than through Steve Simmonds’ unhinged performance as a Santa costume clad Samuel Byck, which had me hooked. His questions of “Who do we believe? Who do we trust? What do we do?” and overwhelming desire to be listened to added humanity to the brutality, and felt particularly striking in today’s political climate.

“This is a play to make you think”

The nature of the play as a musical did make me wonder if it was best suited to the heavy themes, but Stephen Sondheim’s original songs provided an outlet for the assassins to tell their own story. Of course, this didn’t go unchallenged, but this is a play to make you think. The success of the show undoubtedly is made by the sheer talent of the performers. Their ability to not only sing, dance and act, but also play live instruments was impressive to the point of distraction.

“I did find myself at times focusing on those playing rather than the main action”

I did find myself at times focusing on those playing rather than the main action. Lillie Flynn’s chipper performance and strong voice as the Balladeer drove the plot forward, directly questioning the assassins when they argued their case. However, it was this importance of the songs that made it slightly frustrating when clarity was lost in the energy of the movements in the performance.

“A remarkable show, members of the audience deservedly gave a standing ovation to the cast and crew”

A remarkable show, members of the audience deservedly gave a standing ovation to the cast and crew. The level of detail and quality of production was second-to-none. The historical nature of the show means that it is best understood going into it with a prior knowledge of the people and events – I was confused by certain references but don’t let this put you off. Assassins is the most culturally relevant and thoroughly entertaining show you’ll see this year.

Assassins runs until the 16th November 2019.


Rachel Roberts

Featured image courtesy of Nottingham Playhouse Facebook Page.

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