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Assassins

Assassins

★★★★★

Watermill Theatre

Assassins

Assassins

Watermill Theatre Newbury

Reviewed – 30th September 2019

★★★★★

 

“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.

 

Reviewed by David Woodward

Photography by The Other Richard

 

Assassins

Watermill Theatre Newbury until 26th October

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Burke & Hare | ★★★★ | April 2018
A Midsummer Night’s Dream | ★★★★ | May 2018
Jerusalem | ★★★★★ | June 2018
Trial by Laughter | ★★★★ | September 2018
Jane Eyre | ★★★★ | October 2018
Robin Hood | ★★★★ | December 2018
Murder For Two | ★★★★ | February 2019
Macbeth | ★★★ | March 2019
Amélie | ★★★★★ | April 2019
The Importance Of Being Earnest | ★★★★ | May 2019

 

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Equus

Equus
★★★★★

Trafalgar Studios

Equus

Equus

Trafalgar Studios

Reviewed – 15th July 2019

★★★★★

 

“to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine.”

 

It isn’t uncommon to see a play emotionally move an audience – to make them feel the pathos or joy that the characters are experiencing. However, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen theatre physically move an audience – to make them lean forward, gasp, and let their jaws hang for extended periods of time. It’s a testament to the power of Equus, then, that the audience member sat next to me – along with many others – barely seemed to even be in their seat, so moved were they by the ferocious and sinewy stallion of a play that was taking place.

Equus centres on Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), a seventeen-year-old boy who blinded six horses over the course of one night. It rests with psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) to uncover the motivation behind the crime, although in doing so he is also forced to interrogate his own beliefs on religion, passion, and purpose. The story is framed chiefly around this patient-doctor dynamic, although a host of other characters are implicated in Martin’s analysis, including Alan’s parents Dora (Doreene Blackstock) and Frank (Robert Fitch), forming a claustrophobic and tense psychological drama. But the true genius of Peter Shaffer’s writing (also of Amadeus fame) is that this paradigm is only one of the levels on which Equus operates; bubbling under the scientific surface is a much more non-secular interrogation of the social and cultural values that cultivated the environment in which Alan could be compelled to carry out such acts as he did. Shaffer’s rhetoric can be transcendentally poetic, weaving metaphor upon metaphor into a textured tapestry that cuts to the very core of what it means to be alive.

The writing never strays into the territory of being overly-ruminative though. Ned Bennet’s visceral and kinetic direction ensures that the intellectual complexities of the play are being constantly physicalised and theatricalised, with the help of Shelley Maxwell’s inventive and raw movement direction; Alan’s bed being used as a trampoline on which he is brutally flung around under a vicious strobe light, for example, serves to manifest the emotional realities of the character. This is heightened tenfold by the soul-searing strings of the sound design (Giles Thomas), the unnerving, subliminal lighting (Jessica Hung Han Yun), and the slick and stripped back set design (Georgia Lowe). The performances, too, are roundly sublime – Varla especially is revelatory, fully owning the hefty language of his many monologues, immaculately delivering the thematic nuance of the speeches with drive and agency. Credit must also go to the transportive ensemble and animal work, as many of the cast also embody horses during the play, particularly Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget.

However, to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine. The quality of the writing exacerbates the direction, which exacerbates the performances, which exacerbates the design, and so on ad infinitum. It constructs a whole reactor of impeccably crafted atoms, all meteorically colliding with each other in a seamless symbiosis that creates the nuclear level of theatrical and spiritual energy that is transferred to the audience and galvanises them to move. Equus is utterly celestial.

 

Reviewed by Tom Francis

Photography by The Other Richard

 

Equus

Trafalgar Studios until 7th September

 

Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
A Guide for the Homesick | ★★★ | October 2018
Hot Gay Time Machine | ★★★★★ | November 2018
Coming Clean | ★★★★ | January 2019
Black Is The Color Of My Voice | ★★★ | February 2019
Soul Sessions | ★★★★ | February 2019
A Hundred Words For Snow | ★★★★★ | March 2019
Admissions | ★★★ | March 2019
Scary Bikers | ★★★★ | April 2019
Vincent River | ★★★★ | May 2019
Dark Sublime | ★★★ | June 2019

 

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