Following his production of Urinetown and his work at Trafalgar Studios for their Transformed season, director Jamie Lloyd continues his golden run with this vibrant and thrilling production of Stephen Sondheim’s pitch black ode to the American Dream. Here the ‘right to be happy’ means you can solve your problems and appease your misery by killing a president, and this production brilliantly captures both the show’s dark premise and its mordant humour.
From the moment you enter the Menier’s performance space through the gaping mouth of a fairground clown, you are tipped into the topsy-turvy world of a carnival; the contradictory space supposedly dedicated to joy but always tinged with a sinister edge, an unruly chaos full of traps for the unwary but seductive in its anarchic energy. Soutra Gilmour’s set uses the Menier’s space impressively; staged in traverse the production is packed with clever visual flourishes both big and small (the giant ‘Hit’ or ‘Miss’ signs which illuminate depending on the success or failure of the assassination attempt, the subtle way that Lee Harvey Oswald’s outfit is styled to recall Born in the USA era Springsteen, reinforcing the idea of killer-as-rock-star). The design is well thought out and inclusive so that no matter where you’re sitting you get a good view, and the actors’ movements are fluidly choreographed to reach the whole audience, in particular in the sinuous finale, which feels powerful and menacing.
It’s hard to single out performances from a universally strong cast, but Catherine Tate gets some of the biggest laughs, despite a wavering US accent, as Sara Jane Moore – one of only two women to attempt to assassinate a president, in this instance Gerald Ford – who is portrayed here as the kind of ditzy housewife who brings her child along to a murder attempt (an inspired piece of puppetry). Mike McShane is splendidly creepy as would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Byck in his grubby Santa suit, while Harry Morrison cuts a suitably pathetic figure as Jodie Foster’s stalker, John Hinckley, shooting Reagan in order to finally make Foster take notice of him. Jamie Parker moves smoothly from the role of the Balladeer to Lee Harvey Oswald while, as the original presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, Aaron Tveit is charming and convincing, his noxious racial beliefs only evident under pressure.
The whole production is held together by the sinister and charismatic figure of the Proprietor, played by Simon Lipkin. Part fairground barker, part Caliban grotesque, he, like Booth, insinuates himself into the proceedings, with a prompt here, a word of encouragement there – he also embodies all the presidents, with a target pinned to his head or chest, laying himself open to assault. It feels both grim irony and apt commentary on modern America that he is both facilitator and victim: he is the one selling the guns and the one who ends up getting shot.