London's Menier Chocolate Factory is celebrating the 10th anniversary year since it was founded in 2004. During that time it has clocked up some 14 West End transfers that have included three shows by Stephen Sondheim - Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along, with the first two of those also going on to Broadway.
The theatre has also offered the UK premiere of Sondheim's most recent musical Road Show. Now it comes up trumps yet again with a revival of Assassins, a show that originally premiered off-Broadway in 1990 and subsequently received its UK premiere as the opening production of Sam Mendes's regime when he took over at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992.
I saw both of those productions, plus numerous stagings since from Hampstead (where Menier artistic director David Babani made his professional producing debut at the New End Theatre in 1997 with the show while he was still a student at Bristol University) to the Union and regionally in Derby.
But I've never seen a production of such disquieting, disturbing brilliance as director Jamie Lloyd's thrilling new version at the Menier. I've always admired this show's amazing set of songs, with their typical flashes of Sondheim's lyrical genius and musical magnificence that are by turns mournful and hilarious, but often felt an uncomfortable juxtaposition with John Weidman's extended dramatic scenes between them.
Now, however, Lloyd has found a way to blend and splice both the dramatic and musical worlds that the show inhabits together seamlessly. With his matchless designer Soutra Gilmour, he has set the entire show within a decrepit fairground that the audience enter via a gaping cartoon mouth.
Here, as assortment of losers and disenfranchised will seek to have their voices heard by attempting, and some succeeding, to kill eight American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to Ronald Reagan in 1981, for whom the fairground proprietor - the smudged clown-faced Simon Lipkin - stands in. We join them on this roller coaster ride amongst broken people desperately crying out for recognition and validation.
Jamie Lloyd's production splices these separate stories together seamlessly, and is played with raw intensity, vigour and rigour by the best ensemble cast in town. There are outstanding individualised turns from Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore, Carly Basen as Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau, Stewart Clarke as Guiseppe Zangara, Mike McShane as Samuel Byck, David Roberts as Leon Czolgosz and Harry Morrison as John Hinkley that each provide mini-masterclasses in establishing and defining character. But there are also three performances from Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth, Jamie Parker as a folk balladeer who becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, and the aforementioned Simon Lipkin who provide a wider context to their motivations.
Like the equally stylised The Scottsboro Boys, Assassins is a musical of resonant, chastening politics in which form and content are seamlessly integrated in an astonishing, audacious and courageous show.
"Amid a terrific ensemble, Catherine Tate adds welcome levity as the spaced-out Sara Jane Moore...The diminutive Andy Nyman twinkles with mischief as the irrepressible Guiteau...and as Samuel Byck...Mike McShane strikes the perfect anti-festive note of crabby, scary discontent, a quite unforgettable sight in his soiled Santa outfit."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"This revival, played without an interval, is fleet, but Sondheim’s revue format can feel scrappy, and necessarily often lacks depth; not all characters convince or are fully explored. But this is crackling production is certainly more hit than miss."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"In Lloyd’s interpretation, on a set by Soutra Gilmour that resembles the fairground in a horror film, it feels thrilling."
Henry Hitchings for the Evening Standard
"Jamie Parker sings soulfully as the Balladeer; Aaron Tveit makes an indignant, composed Booth. This being the Menier, the show is staged with elan and the music is tightly played."
Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail