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[Review] Assassins

by John Lombard

Everyman Theatre

Belconnen Theatre, 7-21 September 2019

Whether it’s Squeaky Fromme pelting John Hinckley with popcorn, John Wilkes Booth coaching Lee Harvey Oswald in fame, or just everyone ducking whenever Sara Jane Moore uses her gun to gesture, it’s a joy to watch this eclectic cult of presidential assassins mingle.

This musical by Stephen Sondheim with the book by John Weidman gives sympathy to the devils, by letting people who’ve tried to shoot the President of the United States sing their side of the story.

Sondheim’s beautiful, elaborate and discordant music evokes a dirty American dream, where rabid desperation explodes in joyful noise: the bang of a gun.

For directors Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts, this is not a freakshow where we gawk at maniacs, but a funfair where grandiose murder is a last-ditch punt in a crooked game. Pegg and Roberts humanise the assassins through vulnerable moments, whether it’s a confession of love or a plea to be heard.

A Brechtian approach keeps backstage visible and strips the supporting chorus for intimacy and a rawer sound. A fairground setting not only fit the carnival sound in the music but inspired playful clowning from the talented cast. The assassins perform to each other like professional colleagues sharing research findings in a recondite but exciting field.

Jarrad West leads with an accomplished performance as the genteel but deranged patriarch of this infamous club, John Wilkes Booth. Here Booth is a maudlin tempter of weaker souls, beseeching others to bet their life on a spin of the wheel of fortune.

Some assassins are overtly comic: Jim Adamik’s crusty curmudgeon in a Santa suit was a delight, as was Jonathan Rush’s sunny evangelist and Tracy Noble’s gormless innocent abroad. Others are sympathetic, such as Belle Nicol’s Manson-worshiping hippie, or Will Collett’s lovestruck nebbish. Joel Hutchings and Isaac Gordon have striking gravitas as frustrated immigrants, while Pippin Carroll as The Balladeer unites a beautiful voice and a tragic fate.

While the cast nails the characters, they fall short on Sondheim’s merciless harmonies, although music director Alexander Unikowski’s subtle understanding of the score brought out the powerful contrasts in the music.

The carnie aesthetic begged for circus-like stunts and showmanship, but the focus of the directors was on character comedy.

Even with no interval, this is a brisk show, and not every assassin gets a spotlight moment. Aficionados may lament that we don’t get to see Andrew Jackson whacking Richard Lawrence with a cane, or Theodore Roosevelt soaking up bullets like some Non-Giving-Up President Guy.

In the current political climate, “Assassins” is a mischievous choice to stage. But few will come away from this show thinking that a gunshot can fix their problems. The balance of sympathy, comedy, and tragedy is perfectly judged, with footage of the Kennedy assassination showing the gruesome reality behind the frothy aspirations.

A wonderful production of a resonant but lesser-known musical realised with considerable panache by excellent actors.

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