Assassins is an uncommon musical, seeking the motivations of nine individuals who have both failed and succeeded in bumping off US Presidents. The book by John Weidman, and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim puts these characters in a fairground shooting gallery at which the Proprietor sets them up with a gun and positively encourages them to carry out their murderous deeds.

The musical style takes cues from the periods in which the characters lived, although the overall sound is still very much Sondheim. Individual stories are tied together by a Balladeer, who introduces the Assassins one by one. The revue style employed by this device works well as it allows us to get familiar with the characters with little distraction.

Some of this history is already well known, such as John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln and John Hinkley, who took a pop at Ronald Regan in order to impress Jodie Foster – who he had never met. The remaining assassins notoriety is fleshed out from the scraps of information available from the time, such as Charles Guiteau, whom Sondheim and Wiedman suppose shot President Garfield because he wanted to be ambassador to France and also wanted to promote the sales of his (largely plagiarised) book. Of course, we are unlikely to ever know the real reasons why these people picked up a firearm and aimed it at a President, but this show can at least offer an entertaining possibility.

These motives are delivered with predictable Sondheim excellence, painting a deliciously black comedy. The final twist offers a fanciful reason for the demise of JFK at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald. Forget the Cuban. Forget the grassy knoll. This is, perhaps, the ultimate conspiracy theory.

Through The Window Theatre Company tackle this show efficiently. The production offers few frills on set, but the direction is superb and sharply acted.

Individually there are some beautiful voices, such as Ed Nightingale’s Balladeer, who has a warm melodic voice which makes for perfect casting to carry the story along. Adam Morris, too, shines in the delivery of ‘The Ballard of Charles Guiteau’, as does Duncan Rutherford as Giuseppe Zangara in the richly comic ‘How I Shot Roosevelt’.

But it is the ensemble work that really lifts this show. ‘Another National Anthem’ was simply superb, beautifully structured and powerfully delivered. Sondheim fans will find much to like here.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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The Blurb

Life, liberty and the pursuit of presidents: Stephen Sondheim's atmospheric, darkly comic musical ranges freely through the musical styles of American history to reveal the slights, injusticies, prejudices, and insanities that drove its presidential assassins. 'Spine-tingling' (Durham 21).

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