Of all shows that could be adapted for ‘relevance’ at the 2017 Fringe – a festival sporting many acts centring around Trump, Brexit, and civilian unhappiness – Finishing the Hat Production’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins resists this urge and is all the better for it. Chronicling those who tried (and sometimes succeeded) to kill presidents of the United States through a heightened reality, vignette structure, and focus on storytelling, the show delivers the private thoughts and actions of its central villains and victims with honesty and humour. The result is sympathy – these men and women seem no more mad than the world they inhabit – and a pleasant removal from reality which allows forgotten histories to shine.
This production is well adapted for a Fringe space and audience, cutting the piece down to a tight ninety minutes and double- and triple-casting its players to great effect: seeing each assassin return as a President or accomplice is delightfully twisted. Sondheim’s score was well served by the small live band, though at points John Weidman’s spitfire lyrics – sung unamplified in the black box space – were lost underneath the amplified music. This is quite a shame, as much of the narrative and juicy, little-known details of its assassins’ lives are carried through these words.
The premise is simple: assassins from throughout the history of the United States gather to tell their stories, explain their reasoning, and celebrate their firearms. Both the narrative and the cast seem to have the most fun with the lesser-known assassins; while John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald anchor the show with gravitas, Charles Guiteau’s song and dance to the gallows, the ballad of Leon Czolgosz’s shooting of William McKinley, and Samuel Byck’s tape-recorded rants are some of the show’s most engaging and enrapturing sections. This could be due to the more energetic nature of these set pieces and more comprehensive treatment of these figures giving the audience a larger-than-life introduction to them – something not required for Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassins. However, all songs – regardless of the subject’s fame – are performed with the requisite relish and gusto.
The United States’ sole female attempted assassins – also considerably less well-known than Booth or Oswald – are perhaps this production’s highlight. Allowing Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore to interact and coordinate their separate assassination attempts on Gerald Ford may be historically inaccurate, but it is a tremendously fun sequence that allows both figures to explore and explain their motives naturally. The expert chemistrly between Lani Calvert and Melanie O’Hagan brings their respective would-be murderesses to life expertly and entertainingly; Fromme becomes quietly unhinged, and Moore an endearingly trigger-happy klutz.
The rest of the cast are equally talented singers and actors. Among the successful assassins, director Sam Keeler is a vainglorious but sympathetic John Wilkes Booth, Richard Aaron Davies an exuberant Charles Guiteau, and John Ieuan Jones a nervously sinister Leon Czolgosz. The failed assassins were equally well performed by Ollie Kaiper-Leach (Giuseppe Zangara, spouting literal and figurative bile), Oliver Maynard (Samuel Byck, captivatingly insane), and Hugh Beckwith (John Hinckley, Jr., whose love ballad to Jodie Foster was the show’s emotional crux). Lastly, Jack Hawkins tackles the opening number’s Proprietor, omnipresent Balladeer, and climatic Harvey Lee Oswald with excellent energy and wit.
While struggling technically, this production of Sondheim’s classic is unapologetically madcap, thought-provoking, and engrossing until the final bows. If looking for a dark, irreverent chamber musical this Fringe, Assassins comes highly recommended.
Assassins plays at The Space @Venue45 (venue 45) until 26th August. Tickets are £9 (£6 for concessions). Booking and further information can be found at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/assassins and https://assassinsfthp.wordpress.com/.
John Wilkes Booth: Sam Keeler
Charles Guiteau: Richard Aaron Davies
Leon Czolgosz: John Ieuan Jones
Giuseppe Zangara: Ollie Kaiper-Leach
Samuel Byck: Oliver Maynard
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme: Lani Calvert
Sara Jane Moore: Melanie O’Hagan
John Hinckley, Jr.: Hugh Beckwith
Lee Harvey Oswald/ The Balladeer/The Proprietor: Jack Hawkins
Director: Sam Keeler
Musical Director: Giles Deacon
Technical Director: Henry Parritt
Music by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman