Assassins' reputation precedes it. Where the likes of Company, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd have all found beloved status, Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical has always been a trickier prospect. A vaudevillian cabaret of real-life presidential assassins, and those who attempted to join their ranks, the musical eschews a narrative for a kaleidoscopic journey into the psyche of these killers. For every John Wilkes Booth, there's a John Hinckley, and Assassins comes close to digging into why these figures undertook the actions they did.
There's a lot to take away from Assassins. It feels dangerous, potent, and even a little ugly. The audience can't help but shift uncomfortably in our seats as Sondheim manages to find sympathy for the figures at the musical's centre. Director Bill Buckhurst has form here, having achieved a theatrical smash hit with his Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop version of Sweeney Todd. You can't fault his production, and what flaws there are feel a part of the text. Twenty nine years on Assassins feels a relevant watch, if not a particularly comfortable one.
After the success of Kiss Me Kate, this is another actor-musician production that plays to the Watermill Theatre's intimate strengths. Simon Kenny's fabulous set is an American flag-bedecked carnival game, with a wonderfully transformative quality that is saved until the production's final moments. This take on Assassins thrusts itself towards us, bringing the audience close to the action. It feels personable, adding to the impact of the musical. A propulsive ensemble helps too, with the cast effectively embodying the parts they play. Alex Mugnaioni's John Wilkes Booth is a fascinating turn, a rage-filled, heartbreaking figure, whilst Steve Simmonds' Samuel Byck is utterly terrifying. Eddie Elliott's Charles Guiteau has a pathetic gusto, while Peter Dukes' Leon Czolgosz feels the most sympathetic of the real-life figures. The other parts that stand out are the musical's angel and devil, with the ever-present Proprietor (well-played in a gold jacket by Joey Hickman) winning over Lillie Flynn's Balladeer (a beautiful performance that offers a shred of light amongst the show's bleakness) and marking the musical's descent to one of the most famous assassinations in American history.
You have to marvel at the Watermill Theatre's ambition. Assassins is not an easy show to revive. This is a fascinating musical experiment that feels a bit impenetrable for the audience I watched it with. Densely packed with American history, eschewing a traditional narrative for a vaudevillian-style cabaret, Assassins is not like anything I've seen before. But the evening is a sprightly affair, thanks to a terrific ensemble that bring energy and gusto to their difficult parts. They are the reason to seek this show out, with the Watermill Theatre continuing to be an incredible incubator for talent.