Watermill Theatre, Newbury – until 26 October 2019
This is – for us anyway – the first production in the Trump era of this savage musical: a revue reimagining of all the attempts, successful or not, to kill American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Bush and Reagan. Its mocking – though sometimes moving – portrait is of human fantaticism, disappointment, inadequacy, stupidity, vanity, gun-obsession (“crook a little finger to change the world”) and sheer attention-seeking. Which, I have to murmur in passing, makes it doubly ironic and alarming in an age when the President himself displays at least three of the above most days on Twitter.
But the show itself is deathless, one to cherish. To some it will always seem harsh and dark for comfort, the brilliance of the Sondheim rhymes inappropriate for a lethal topic. But Bill Buckhurst’s production has all the necessary vigour and the human seriousness too: it helps having a stunningly gifted set of actor-musicians roaming the stage (and the sides, at times), to give vivid life to Sondheim’s echoes of the great American musics: bluegrass, honkytonk line dance, gospel, vaudeville, Bernstein, jazz. It also fits to have a young woman – Lillie Flynn in a western check shirt and jeans – as narrator: standing aside, plaintively asking from the start “Why did you do it, Johnny?” as Wilkes Booth rants about his bad reviews and hatred of the “n—- loving” Lincoln.
In its tight, unbroken 100 minutes many performances stand out: flamboyantly Eddie Elliott as the vain Charles Guiteau, Steve Symonds as the enraged, ranting Samuel Byck in a Santa suit, decrying and defining Americana; there is light relief in imagined conversations between Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore – Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer – who both failed to get Gerald Ford, for no reasonable reason; and pathos in Jack Quarton as poor mad Hinkley who thought that Jodie Foster might notice him if he killed Reagan.
They meet and interact across the decades, most of all in a tremendous, marvellouslly staged ensemble when the ghosts of past and future gather round the miserable Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas and persuade him that the only way to become immortal, cited and counted in the hall of infamous fame, is to shoot John Kennedy rather than himself. Their argument, perennial and insidious, has you holding your breath. Even though you know the outcome.
It’s a bravura performance. And always horribly timely. Why else do American heads of state travel in armoured limousines even down the Mall, when ours, thank God, still braves a golden coach ?