Presidential Potshots

Assassins is a tasteless but energetic gallop through the long roll-call of America’s obsessive killers

Theatre
Needy and nutty: the cast in “Assassins” (photo: Nobby Clark)

What has possessed the varied ranks of obsessives, grudge-bearers and fantasists to attempt the assassination of so many American presidents? John Wilkes Booth set the trend by dispatching Abraham Lincoln in the midst of watching Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre back in 1865. Eight more have been targets since.

Stephen Sondheim’s exploration of the homicidal streak in American democracy is revived with gusto at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Tasteless? You betcha. But Assassins is still intriguing enough to hold our attention for a gallop through the bizarre motives and the societies they sprang from. We start with a bloodied Booth (Aaron Tveit) musing about the blend of grievance over bad reviews and Southern resentments that nudged him to shoot Lincoln in the head. Those who succeed, as Sondheim points out in Lincoln’s case, make sure that a leader who would have otherwise “gotten mixed reviews, now only gets raves”.

The Menier has had an impressive 12 months, from Candide to the stand-out Forbidden Broadway. Its final offering is as slick and assured as the rest. This time, Catherine Tate joins the cast, as one of the two frankly nutty ladies who took potshots at Gerald Ford within a couple of weeks of one another in 1975. So much for the thesis that activist presidents like Ronald Reagan invite trouble: there never was a more herbivorous leader of the free world than President Ford and still he ended up with the dubious distinction of being shot at twice, first by the girlfriend of Charles Manson, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and then by Sara Jane Moore, a Patty Hearst obsessive.

Tate is best remembered for her galaxy of appealing-appalling female characters in her eponymous TV show but she can also turn in an impressive stage turn, notably as a raucous Beatrice to David Tennant’s Benedick in the West End a couple of years ago. She does not quite nail the combination of hippy amoralism which made the 1970s such a scary time to be around in America. What she does exude, though, is the needy neurosis with a nasty edge that turns into murderous intent. Alas, a thin layer of Dallas drawl cannot obscure the fact that her voice seems to owe more to the Thames Estuary than the American South.

If Assassins cannot tell us much new about motives of presidential hit men and women, it reminds us of the tales of largely forgotten ones, like Leon Czolgosz, who gave anarchism a bad name by shooting President McKinley, ushering in the great Roosevelt dynasty. Czolgosz sounds awfully like a forerunner of the self-righteous Occupy lot today, driven by the chilly self-belief of the fanatic. “I killed the President because he was enemy of the good people, the good working people,” he concludes. So that’s all right then.

Sondheim is justly scathing about the justifications of those who become infamous by mowing down political leaders in a democracy. “Just crook your little finger,” is a paean to the pointlessness of it all, while “Everyone’s got the right to be happy” examines what happens when the American dream becomes a source of bile and bitterness, rather than inspiration. Finally, we get to Dallas and feel the reverberations of the killing of a modern President. Blood-red ticker tape showers down on the audience. Jamie Lloyd’s bold production crackles with energy and does a difficult subject justice.

The single dramatic event of the year, as far as my gaggle of teenagers is concerned, was not some harrowing modern piece of Simon Stephens intended to make them mull on the state of Britannia, nor even the barrels of laughs delivered by the Arcola’s The Rivals. No, the only thing that gives them undutiful pleasure was The Play That Goes Wrong, an Edinburgh transfer to the Duchess Theatre. It features the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society performing a 1920s country house murder mystery, which is frankly awful and doomed to many Fawlty-esque malfunctions. Mark Bell’s production understands the secret of a farce-timing has to to be near perfect to make a pratfall truly funny and as the horrors pile up, we share the comic embarrassment of a grand project gone awry. If you know Michael Frayn’s Noises Off you may object that this has all been done before. But The Play that Goes Wrong reminds us that nothing succeeds on stage like the right sort of mishap.

I’ve had enjoyable notes from Standpoint readers this year, but a frequent and understandable complaint is that many London productions are over-booked and expensive. So here, in the spirit of the everlasting austerity years, is a thrifty tip. The productions of the final-year drama schools are an under-cherished way to introduce young audiences to the classics without always forking out for West End tickets. The Importance of Being Earnest, by the Mountview Academy in Haringey, recently gave us Lady Bracknell (Becky Black) as a stylish harridan: a Mrs Robinson with a lascivious eye on Jack (Jolyon Price). Cecily (Allegra Marland) was an acidly sweet ingénue. Some directorial leeway might have been a tad too elastic — an insistence on translating Gwendolen’s fortune into today’s millions jarred and little is gained by Merriman being asked to call for a “taxi” instead of the Wildean dogcart for Algernon. But watching young actors going through their paces is worth a punt. Looking at the Guildhall School of Drama’s roll of honour, I realised I could have seen the likes of Daniel Craig and Stephen Campbell Moore performing just a few years before they were granted star status. The smug pleasure gained by pointing out that we first saw dear Daniel long before he was in gold-plated Speedo trunks would have been worth the odd fluffed line.

Finally, as we enter the season of panto (just shoot me now), grown-ups might be hankering for a night in with a decent returning drama series. If you have not seen The Good Wife, brimming with the hypocrisies, humour and humbug of life in a firm of Chicago lawyers, it is the golden goose of the genre, chalking up a sixth series for CBS in 2014. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) seeks to avenge her scuzzy husband’s wrongdoing as state attorney, only to end up in the grey areas where ambition meets compromise. “I’m not that person” she tells his cloven-footed spin-doctor Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). “Everyone is that person,” Mr Gold retorts. I’m retiring until February with the last 20 episodes and a box of violet creams.