Review - Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory

What's immediately striking about the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Assassins, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is that isn't not afraid to be shocking. It doesn't shy away from the darkness in the script, and hide under the facade of catchy Sondheim numbers, it embraces the contrast, and the result is unlike anything else you're likely to see in London right now!
Staging Assassins in the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre is a stroke of genius in itself. The space is dark, shadowy and utterly eerie. As you walk in to the theatre through a giant clown head shaped archway, you feel the mood of the whole audience shift. My friends and I had been chatting away, handing over out tickets as we were so used to doing, but as soon as we were let in, like everyone else who'd entered before us, we were reduced to whispers. You see the Bystander characters immediately, gazing out into the space, popcorn in hand, and in front of them in a dilapidated bumper car lounges The Balladeer (Jamie Parker), strumming his guitar and playing the harmonica lazily, waiting, like the rest of us, for the show to begin. At the other end of the room is a large gaping hollow clown's head, lying ominously on it's side. The room is lit dimly, with worn out light bulbs on a string hanging above the stage, and at either end of the traverse stage is a sign, one reading 'Hit' and one reading 'Miss'.The overall effect is forbiddingly creepy and reminiscent of a carnival or freak show, but not the kind you'd be wanting to take your kids to.

As soon as the show begins, its clear that this isn't the kind of show which you can just sit back and imbibe. In fact, my friends and I had front row seats, meaning that we were showered in spit, covered in confetti and had had guns pointed at our heads on numerous occasions. I've honestly never seen a show like it in terms of actor-audience interaction. And the cast is absolutely top notch too. Simon Lipkin as the Proprietor is terrifyingly good. Dressed in a long leather jacket with 8 guns sticking out of it's inside pockets, he lumbers around stage exuding confidence, but at the same time seeming utterly unhinged, definitely not the sort of person you'd want to meet in a dark alley at night. Throughout the show, the Proprietor commands a motley crew of past assassins as each of them explains why they killed, or attempted to kill, their presidents. In this show every cast member gets a moment to shine, from Michael Xavier's suave, velvety voiced John Wilkes Booth, to David Roberts's stammering and unnervingly endearing Leon Czolgosz, there is no one stand out performance as everyone is equally incredible.

In terms of music, although Assassins is a notoriously hard show to sell, it features an incredible mix of showstopping solos such as The Ballad of Booth, catchy group numbers like How I Saved Roosevelt (brilliantly staged in this production, with cameras flashing and Guiseppe Zangara (Stewart Clarke) being taped to an electric chair while the Bystanders dressed in pastel colours cheerily explain how they stopped his assassination attempt.) and of course, the reprise of Everybody's Got The Right, perhaps the catchiest song in the show, during which in this production the cast dance around in red confetti, symbolic of the blood which they spilled, the iconic Sondheim music could not be more atmospheric. Personally, I found Unworthy of Your Love, a love song turned on its head and sung by unsucessful assassins Lynette Fromme (Carly Bawden) and John Hinkley (Harry Morrison) to their respective loves Charles Manson and Jodie Foster to be particularly heartrendingly powerful. The mad desperation with which the actors performed was raw and incredibly emotional.

This production is dares to be shocking and as an audience member, although it feels wrong, you revel in the violence played out just meters in front of you. From the abrupt pointblank shootings, to the jarring electric chair deaths and even through a very graphic on-stage hanging, you find yourself unable to tear your eyes away. Disturbingly, it seem not even the audience can resist the thrill of the kill!

Sadly, Assassins has been totally sold out for months now and it closes of the 7th of March, but I have absolutely fallen in love with the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre as a space, and will definitely be returning soon!

Verdict - 5 Stars

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