“The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping”
This new musical – book and lyrics by April de Angelis, music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers – brings to life William Hogarth’s shocking 1751 etching ‘Gin Lane’ portraying grotesque caricatures of people suffering from the Gin Craze that was rife in the early part of the eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, we meet a number of these ladies under the influence who sing, dance, and extol the virtues of their favourite tipple. A pawn broker’s sign hangs close to the stage, the same sign as in Hogarth’s print.
The set (designed by Hayley Grindle) is built on two levels and reinforces a view of the class divide with the wealthy Fielding family and a semi-sozzled Queen Caroline appearing on the upper level whilst the gin ladies are firmly rooted on the ground and at the bottom of society. Through the shadows of wooden beams and hanging ropes, we can see various musical instruments: harpsichord, violin, cello, double bass, guitar, timpani. Each member of the eight strong ensemble takes their turn at becoming the band. Plus the ever-present MD Tamara Saringer at the keys.
For much of the time we could describe this as a folk musical. The singing is gentle and refined, the lyrics ballad-like in form, and the duets between the two main leads contain excellent close folk harmonies. The arrangement of the songs is most striking particularly those making use of violin and cello underlay.
The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping. “Gin Dive” is the standout song that reappears close to the end in a poignant unaccompanied close harmony version. “It’s the Law” becomes a good old cockney knees-up with comedy trombone. Many of the scenes can be described as bawdy – and are especially enjoyed because of that – at times they are out-and-out plain rude.
The plot – or the message of the show, perhaps – is summed up with the song title, “What does a woman have to do to get a better life?”. We follow the journey of Mary (Aruhan Galieva) who whilst working as a servant is knocked up by the visiting priest, kicked out into the street, tricked into giving away her baby, and narrowly avoids rape and prostitution by setting up as a gin hawker. We learn that life for a woman is not a bed of roses. But then, Mary befriends Lydia (Paksie Vernon), her saving grace.
Director Michael Oakley produces the most spirited scenes when the gin women appear on stage together. If their individual characters do appear on the caricature side of sincere then we can allow that they may have been first based upon a cartoon. But, in the midst of tragedy, despite the best efforts of this hard-working cast, there is little tension to be felt and we remain unmoved. Particularly, much of the momentum is lost after the interval as attention turns away from the rumbustious Gin Lane into the genteel home of the foppish Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his do-gooder sister Sarah (Rachel Winters).
April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers have created a most fascinating feminist – and musical – response to an interesting period of English history which reflects well on Hogarth’s masterpiece that initially inspired the idea.
“knocks the socks off the original cast recording”
“Attention must be paid”. Towards the end of his musical ‘Assassins’, which had a triumphant performance at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury last night, the legendary Stephen Sondheim quotes this line from Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
‘Assassins’ is a musical that asks just exactly what would make ten Americans want to kill eight Presidents, from Lincoln to Reagan. The answer lies in that quote, which neatly also describes the audience’s rapt concentration during a quite extraordinary show. And if you are thinking that the killing of presidents and the fate of their would-be assassins is a rather macabre subject for a musical, be re-assured. Although it carries a 14+ advisory, this is an altogether entertaining and most thought-provoking show.
The Watermill has a history of championing eight times Tony award-winning Sondheim, whose work is held in such awe that even the most august critics are reduced to scrabbling autograph hunters in his presence. ‘Assassins’ is by no means his best-known work, but it is perhaps his most intriguing.
Not long into the piece, which had its premiere off-Broadway in 1990, the character of the Balladeer (here played with great presence and likeability by Lillie Flynn) sings “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along” And if you are thinking that line has more than a little resonance today, I suspect Sondheim would agree with you.
Space is tight at the Watermill, making any performance an intimate and involving experience. Director Bill Buckhurst has cleverly used a Coke machine to replace the fairground shooting gallery specified in the script, and Simon Kenny’s set design is starkly effective, with some ingenious twists towards the end.
It’s a little invidious to highlight standout performances in such a tight ensemble work, but several deserve special mention. Steve Simmonds’ has two brilliantly intense monologues as Samuel Byck, who planned to hijack a 747 to kill Nixon. Zheng Xi Yong gives a sinuous and wonderfully committed performance as Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to assassinate FD Roosevelt.
Evelyn Hoskins (Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) and Sara Poyzer (Sarah Jane Moore) have some excellent scenes. Poyzer plays a cookie ex-Fed, nicely contrasting with Hoskins’ weed-toting take on mass-murderer Manson’s moll. Eddie Elliott has a powerful charisma as Charles Guiteau, especially in the difficult key-changing number he sings so brilliantly just before his character walks to the gallows. Joey Hickman has a menacing glassy-eyed demeanour as the Proprietor of this captivating parade of human failings. Alex Mugnaioni is eerily compelling as ‘the pioneer’ – the first Presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Ned Rudkins-Stow has the task of bringing to life John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The traumatic impact of this murder on the American mindset resonates to this day, and Rudkins-Stow’s lean interpretation makes it crystal clear that Oswald was a simple-minded victim of manipulation.
Catherine Tyler is responsible for the compelling orchestration, which makes the most of the entire cast’s astonishing musical abilities, requiring some of them to play one instrument whilst holding another, and to jump seamlessly from drums or keyboard to appearing centre stage. Expert choreography by Assistant Director Georgina Lamb ensures it all works smoothly.
This version of ‘Assassins’ knocks the socks off the original cast recording and is strongly recommended.