Even if there’d been just a single attempt on the life of a US president, you’d think that would be reason enough to reassess the United States Constitution’s Second Amendment which protects the right of the individual to keep and bear arms.
But Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning 1990 musical introduces us to no less than nine would-be assassins who variously tried, failed or succeeded in taking a fatal pot-shot at eight past presidents. In Jamie Lloyd’s macabre revival, the setting is a derelict fairground, where light bulbs flicker overhead and Simon Lipkin’s ghoulish proprietor (in streaked clown makeup) dishes out deadly weapons to anyone with enough dollars in his – or, in a couple of cases, her – pocket.
From 1865 to 1989, accompanied by ballads in the appropriate style, Sondheim (with writer John Weidman) introduces us to the disgruntled, the deranged and the downright daft who decided to take matters into their own hands – starting with pro-Confederate John Wilkes Booth (a slick Aaron Tveit) who killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and, here, comes back almost a century later to goad an emotionally tormented Lee Harvey Oswald (Jamie Parker) into putting a swift end to John F Kennedy’s life.
On the (non-chronological) way we meet, among others, a Polish anarchist who blamed the government for his pitiful wages, and Jodie Foster fan John Hinckley who was convinced that the way to her heart was to put a bullet through Ronald Reagan’s (the President survived a punctured lung). We’re also introduced to a bricklayer with a pain in his gut and Andy Nyman’s delusional Charles Guiteau, who sings in ecstasy as the noose tightens around his neck.
Then there are the women, both of whom unsuccessfully took aim at President Ford – one (Catherine Tate’s Sara Jane Moore) portrayed as a comic incompetent who shoots her dog by mistake; the other a totally unhinged follower of multiple murderer Charles Manson.
Hardly seasonal, then – but its clever black humour deftly shows that, for some, taking desperate measures seems the only way to make themselves heard when the American Dream remains beyond their grasp.
Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU
Tube: London Bridge
Until 7th March
£37.50 – £39.50 (Meal Deals £45.50)