SHENTON'S VIEW (Mark Shenton/The Stage Blog)
There's no cry more heartfelt in modern American drama than Willy Loman's wife's cry about her husband Willy in Death in a Salesman: "Attention, attention finally must be paid to such a person." And it is startlingly referenced in John Weidman's script for one of Sondheim's most audacious concept musicals Assassins... READ MORE HERE
TIME OUT (Critics Choice & Show of the Week)
Stephen Sondheim's firebrand musical might lose the irony behind its Broadway tipsiness when scaled down but, in Michael Strassen's distilled staging, it gains all the potency of moonshine. The collective of would-be President killers stands steadfast before us like a picket line. We don't just see the imagery of insurgency, we bear its brunt. To hear them blasting Another National Anthem is like finding an anti-war rally in your living room.
In the main, Strassen disregards historical likeness, preferring instead to savour the flavour of Sondheim's caricatures. The result is a cracking ensemble, miscellaneous as a toybox, and a string of playful individual performances, from John Barr's waddling fruitcake of a Guiteau to Leigh McDonald's squawking Sara Jane Moore.
There is a tendency for more flippant characters to overwhelm those with real political motivations. But this doesn't detract from performances like that of Nick Holder - best of all - as a raspy Samuel Byck, who plotted to fly a 747 into Nixon's White House. Plump as a Thanksgiving turkey and greasy as a McNugget, his perfectly-paced tape-recorded rant to Lenny Bernstein conveys a furious cynicism born of long-term, deep-seated injustice. More could be made of the CIA chorus, but on a purgatorial brick-walled bare stage this Assassins scars like an exit-wound.
'...If Assassins is worth seeing for the crafting of a highly intelligent piece of musical theatre, then this particular production is worth seeing for the brilliance, skill and passion of its cast. Without exception, each actor appears as a force of nature from Glyn Kerslake’s charming take on Southerner John Wilkes Booth through to the insane, show-stopping energy of John Barr’s Charles Guiteau. Alison Larnder and Leigh McDonald are simply mesmerising as Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore joining forces in a failed attempt to assassinate Ford, while Nick Holder is a formidable stage presence as the bullish Samuel Byck. Michael Strassen’s lucid direction maintains the focus, while his simple musical staging colours the ensemble numbers as efficiently as Steve Miller’s sublime lighting design...'
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
'...Audiences now seem more accepting of unconventional material (thanks in large part to Sondheim's trailblazing) and Michael Strassen's revival of Assassins at the Union Theatre is sure to have a better reception. And it deserves one...'
'...Since director Michael Strassen has given the Balladeer an Obama-like persona his words have refreshing twist of interpretation, and it also provides an up-to-date visual slant allowing much of the support to be carried out by suited and sun-glassed Secret Service bodyguards that could have just come off the set of West Wing...'
'...Nolan Frederick's sonorous voice is joy to listen to as the Balladeer and Glyn Kerslake makes a very charismatic and authoritative John Wilkes Booth. Leigh McDonald gives a good comic turn as Sara Jane Moore the batty, middle-aged, much divorced single mother who shows just how dangerous battiness can be...'
'...Nick Holder, who was memorably repellent in Little Fish plays unsavoury Byck who planned to crash a plane into Nixon's Whitehouse. He balances Byck's rational thoughts with his madder output and although leaning towards being overworked this is unquestionably one of the strong performances of the evening...'
'...Casting Nolan Frederick as the Balladeer, a narrator figure, typifies director Michael Strassen’s assuredness – that Frederick is black and stands behind a podium bearing the presidential seal cannot but fail to bring to mind President Obama whom, it has been said, is the most carefully protected president in American history. Most will remember that his inauguration speech was conducted from behind bullet-proof screens...'
'...Strassen’s casting is superb throughout – rarely have I known a group of actors to so closely resemble my idea of what their character should look like. Glyn Kerslake stands out as the patriotic yet unbalanced John Wilkes Booth, who, according to this view of history, by assassinating Abraham Lincoln set a bloody trend. But it was Nick Holder who blew me away with his stunning performance as the working class, burger-troughing, Bud-swigging American Samuel Byck, who murdered two men in an attempt to kill Richard Nixon...'
'...Elsewhere, Leigh McDonald brings in some well-judged levity as Sara Jane Moore (would-be assassin of Gerald Ford), who resembles a soccer-mom gone really, really bad. In truth, the cast shine throughout, rising to the substantial challenge of singing Sondheim while digging deep to find an affinity with their particular murdering lunatic...'
ATTITUDE MAGAZINE (5 Stars)
I’m not sure this portentous Sondhiem musical is quite as profound as it like to think it is. Those who’ve murdered or attempted to murder US presidents are paraded before us telling their stories and seeking the validation the assignation of JFK will apparently bring. This freak show of bottled up anger and skewed thinking is genuinely creepy especially in the dark, dank surroundings of the atmospheric Union Theatre. But even if the writing doesn’t add up to very much I urge you to catch this production and enjoy one of the finest casts I’ve ever seen on the London fringe. Every member of the company turns in a stunningly detailed, meticulously acted, gorgeously sung performance in Michael Strassen’s simple staging of smoke and shadows. Glyn Kerslake is commandingly suave as Lincoln’s murder and Nick Holder is terrifying as Nixon’s would be killer but everyone succeeds in capturing the disturbing ticks of this bunch of homicidal misfits. There’s also an unusually large band for a fringe musical, tightly conducted by the handsome Michael Bradly. This one's a must see!
'...The ensemble work of choruses is technically spot-on in Michael Strassen’s superbly fluid staging. However, that said, there are stand-out moments. Glyn Kerslake is all-too-convincing as Booth, apparently a sane working actor but with an underlying obsession. John Barr gives a quirky, eccentric performance as Guiteau, something of a clown figure but concealing his true sentiments. Marc Joseph reveals the complete sadness of Oswald’s situation, a loser all his life who just cannot function properly after time spent in the Soviet Union. Nick Holder’s Samuel Byck is a magnificent tour de force of brutal acting and of inhabiting a part with such conviction, that his bogeyman presence is palpably chilling...'
'...Director and choreographer Michael Strassen makes cutting edge statements, such as casting the Balladeer as an Obama-type figure and turning the ensemble into Matrix-like, sunglass-adorning secret agents. His greatest strength however lies in the fact that like great Italian food, he sticks to simply presenting his quality ingredients (including a carefully hand-picked cast) without feeling the need to enhance with unnecessary and distracting extras...'
'...Glyn Kerslake as the assassins forefather John Wilkes Booth gives a stunning dramatic and vocal performance, never losing a sense of bitter irony and leading the company with perfected ease. John Barr as aspiring Ambassador to France Charles Guiteau entertains with excellence as an almost Chaplin-like figure while newcomer Adam Jarrell as Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz portrays with strong honesty, proving he is a talent to watch closely for the future. We get gritted teeth, rage and passion aplenty from Joe Alessi as Italian stomach pain sufferer Zangara, whilst Nick Holder as Samuel Byck holds the audience spellbound in the palm of his hand with his booming monologues and expression of terrifying desperation...'
'...Leigh McDonald and Alison Larnder are quite the pair as Manson-clan-member Fromme and former FBI informant Moore while Paul Callen as Jodie Foster obsessed Hinckley depicts a nice, subdued contrast to their volatile antics. Nolan Frederick proves to be a very classy yet mischievous narrator, Marc Joseph as proposed JFK assassinator Oswald succeeds in heightening the atmosphere to a whole new level towards the end of the evening with his appearance, and Lisa Stokke contributes a strong acting cameo as freedom fighter Emma Goldman...'
'...Sucked in from the start right until the closing mantra “Everybody’s got the right”, we are transported into the souls and minds of political rebels and activists tackling aspects of society still thought provokingly relevant today. This seamlessly performed and sensitively constructed gem has certainly got the right for a West End transfer...'
THEATRE GUIDE LONDON
'...I first saw Assassins about fifteen years ago in a weak student production that made it seem like a really lousy show. Now the admirable Union Theatre offers us a beautifully staged, beautifully acted, beautifully sung production for which I have nothing but praise...'
'...Glyn Kerslake's smooth-talking Booth carries much of the dramatic and thematic weight with style, while Leigh McDonald's Moore is a delightfully loopy comic creation. In a couple of solo scenes as Samuel Byck (Nixon, planned to fly a plane into the White House), Nick Holder gives a bravura performance, turning weak material into a nightmare version of the almost-insane ordinary guy you can meet on the streets of any city; and with about five minutes of stage time and a half-dozen lines, Marc Joseph creates a believable and even sympathetic Oswald...'
TOTALLY THEATRE (5 Stars)
'...Cue director Michael Strassen with his black balladeer, an Obama-esque figure (Nolan Frederick) surrounded by his ensemble of protection officers, milling around the audience pre-show with earpieces, sunglasses and suits.
One of those officers becomes the "bad apple" who invites the ghosts of the assassins to tell their stories and ultimately convince Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger from the Texas Book Depository window.
It's a stellar cast all-round, but even so, Glyn Kerslake's engaging and imposing Booth and Nick Holder's intense, manic-depressive Sam Byck offer outstanding, compelling, powerhouse performances which ensure attention must be paid.
Sound was gloriously unmiked, from watertight barbershop harmonies to blasts of full-pelt vocals which ricochet off the Union's back wall in fine style - and no dodgy gunshots here - just balloons popping behind the audience with maximum impact.
Powerful stuff, a sublime production, and whether you love it or loathe it, the backlash reverberates long into the night...'.
THE PUBLIC REVIEWS
‘…there are some excellent individual performances and a consistently good ensemble. The whole cast sings clearly and accurately without mics, and Glyn Kerslake (as John Wilkes Booth) John Barr as Charles Guiteau (who shot President Garfield) and Leigh McDonald as Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin Sarah Jane Moore, are particularly strong. Not all the characters are drawn in three dimensions or allowed the full range of emotions, but Nick Holder drew every ounce of humour as well as anguish from his brilliantly realistic characterisation of Sam Byck, a bankrupt salesman in a Santa Claus suit who initiated a plot to fly a 747 into the Reagan White House...'
'...Director Michael Strassen deserves great credit for the illuminated way in which the stories are presented, and for his huge versatility in staging this recondite and convoluted piece as smartly as his much-lauded production of Company in the same space last year. But now, please – have a go at Follies...'
'...Secret Service men with the obligatory shades and earpieces stood guard at strategic points around the Union Theatre. A man was hustled quickly through a side door. No, Obama was not in town, this was the start of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, about those who had tried, or succeeded, to kill American presidents. I suppose there are better topics for song and dance but this subject matter certainly set Sondheim's quill aquiver...'
'...Nick Holder does a grotesquely great Sam Byck, who ironed out two innocent victims before taking a fatal bullet himself in his quest to end Nixon's reign shortly before the laws of the land did; Leigh McDonald does a good comic turn as an inept killer whose gun was always going off accidentally, and Glyn Kerslake seems very pleased about taking out Abe Lincoln as he smiles his way though the show and keeps us up on who's who. Good work also from Nolan Frederick as a kind of Master of Ceremonies...'
BOYZ MAGAZINE (5 Stars)
'...At less than two hours long and with no interval, Assassins is a funny and intensely unnerving experience, the highlight being a love song sung by John Hinckley Jr. to a poster of Jodie Foster (Hinckley eventually shot Ronald Regan in an attempt to win her love). The cast's energy is remarkable and despite the somewhat patchwork nature of the show, the result is a dark and compelling inversion of the American Dream...'
WEST END WHINGERS (5 Stars)
‘…Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is revived at the Union Theatre under the direction of Michael Strassen who scored such a critical hit with his production of Sondheim’s Company at the Union a year ago.
Could lightning possibly strike twice? Actually, yes And twice as brightly. Assassins may be half the musical that Company is but this production is twice as good: flawlessly cast, sung (unmiked) as loud and as clear as a bell (and well), imaginatively orchestrated by Richard Bates (and played by a six piece band including occasional banjo and accordion), very well-costumed, atmospherically lit (by Steve Miller)…’
‘…it’s difficult to imagine a better production of this coming along any time soon…’