Despite its name, the Pleasance is situated in a spectacularly unpleasant urban hinterland between Camden and Islington, but it is thankfully adjacent to Shillibeers bar and restaurant, where we took advantage of the food and drink menu before wending our way up the concrete stairs and metal gantry to the theatre in time for a vodka and tonic ahead of curtain up.
Opening in a fairground shooting gallery, the assassins appear and are given their weapons by the proprietor, a menacing Paul Burnham. A narrator arrives in the form of the Balladeer, a buff Johnjo Flynn who, inexplicably, has a sweater jauntily tied around his neck in the manner of a mid-80’s A-list gay on a summer evening in the Hamptons. Anyway I digress, Johnjo Flynn has a strong voice, easy charm and takes us through the individual stories, beginning with Martin Dickinson’s John Wilkes Booth, a failed actor who kills Abraham Lincoln. Dickinson is a towering presence throughout the production, his barely suppressed rage against the world allowing us to glimpse the motivation of a murderer. However, he does have possibly the worst false moustache I have ever seen, think early Groucho Marx, and it is distinctly distracting.
Brandon Force as Charles Guiteau, the assassin of James Garfield, is absolutely incredible. So much so that the only time the production truly soars is when he is centre stage and you wish everyone else would up their game to join him. His big number, a fabulous tableau when Guiteau is heading for the gallows, is both funny and heartbreaking and even when he has the odd line, his portrayal of a needy nerdy pitiable fantasist effortlessly outshines the rest of the cast.
One by one we hear pathetic defences of atrocious deeds, all claiming that their dismal lives would be turned around if they only killed a president. This climaxes with the assassination of John F Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, also played by Johnjo Flynn sans sweater. Flynn finally comes into his own as Oswald, believably touching as a broken man with a troubled home life, and I found myself having genuine sympathy for the character. Oswald, the reluctant pin-up boy of all the others, is persuaded by Martin Dickinson’s malevolent Booth that this one supremely violent deed will secure not only his own place in the record books, but that of all the others, who gather around egging him on. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is a strong, workmanlike production of a demanding show, with a couple of standout performances, especially that of Brandon Force. This was only the second night, but it had been designated “press night”, so no excuses there. I do imagine it will get better as the run progresses and you can never have too much Sondheim, so I am making a return visit in a couple of weeks. The band sounded great and it was a real joy to hear songs like Another National Anthem and Everybody’s Got The Right belted out by a professional cast, they just need some of Brandon Force’s magic to rub off on them and it could be stupendous.
Booking until 7 April 2012, Brandon is a Force of nature - Assassins