Edinburgh Fringe: Assassins

MOLLIE WINTLE is pleasantly surprised by this original take on the darker side of the American Dream.

assassins charlie merriman edinburgh Genevieve Gaunt Musical Theatre Society sondheim

theSpace, Surgeon’s Hall, 2pm, Mon 12 – Fri 23 August, £8/£6


I was dubious as to whether this slightly more original choice from the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society would be successful in Edinburgh.

A lesser-known Sondheim musical, Assassins tells the story of the motivations of the assassination attempts of various Presidents of the US. However, surreal, charming and magnificently energetic, this production proved me utterly wrong.

This does not mean that Assassins was flawless. Although an interesting conceit, the plot was both too choppy and too weak to anchor us in a narrative. Instead suspense had to be sustained by the intrigue with which we awaited each character’s story. Whilst this was ultimately successful, after a strong opening number, the first half dragged a little and it picked up only as more characters were introduced. Charlie Merriman provided an amusing turn as Charles Guiteau, but it is Genevieve Gaunt and Martha Bennett who must be commended for the most entertaining and dynamic scenes of the play. Both utterly mad, the two characters fret and boast their way into an agreement to kill President Gerald Ford in a story which is at once both pathetic and hilarious.

Such a conceit demands a strong element of the absurd, and this was delivered. The proprietor does not leave the stage, but watches the action with admirable stamina, occasionally leaving his box to taunt or sing loudly at another character. Matthew Elliot-Ripley, in fluoro yellow and pink, is magnetically creepy here. Will Karani, a check-shirted bard, hangs the tales together and delivers an ironic turn towards the end as Lee Harvey Oswald, urged by the other characters to join their rank of assassins. This was one of the best scenes of the play, with the singing talent out in full force, and reminding us of the underlying issue of the American Dream: each character has bought into it and been let down somehow, and even the narrator of the play is vulnerable.

The band is an important and indispensable highlight. It was excellent: tight and professional, and a nice (although possibly necessary) touch was to have the actors join in at points. I dare to lay the blame at Sondheim’s feet here though, for an absence of particularly memorable tunes. Aydan Greatrick’s solo as John Wilkes Booth should have been poignant, but the melody he sang did not match his acting in terms of emotion. This was a pity, yet unfortunately a recurring theme. A happier recurring theme, however, was the consistency of the talent within the show – the singing was universally matched by acting ability. Indeed, some of the most powerful moments belonged to the unaccompanied monologues. James Ellis’ portrayal of a disillusioned Samuel Byck was particularly strong, capturing a picture of quiet mania in an incongruously cheery Santa outfit.

The choreography too was excellent. Even unaccompanied movement was creative, as we were presented with a trio of assassins or a lurching crowd. This came to a climax in a spectacular percussion-gun-stamp-dance in which each of the assassins crashed their weapons against photos and hip flasks whilst careening around the stage. This unusual choice of show proved to be an excellent one, as we were shown exactly how fitting to a musical the assassination attempts of presidents could be.