The red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes are emblazoned across the stage. The music is loud and raucous, rock and bluegrass; the atmosphere carnival, flags, bunting and baseball caps. It’s showtime. We are at a US political convention, here to be manipulated and to cheer for the man of the people – the Proprietor (Peter Forbes, exuding brash showbiz glitz) – who promises to deliver the American Dream.
It’s politics as showbusiness in this revival of the 1990 hit – characterised by grandiose promises that are never kept. When disillusionment turns to bitter disappointment, what do you do? “Well, we do the only thing we can,” says Samuel Byck, would-be assassin of Richard Nixon (played brilliantly by Nick Holder), “We kill the president.”
Thirteen people have attempted to assassinate the President or President-Elect of the United States. Four succeeded, killing Abraham Lincoln, James A Garfield, William McKinley and John F Kennedy. Nine are featured in this time-bending show, their stories skilfully woven together.
On-screen news images bring immediacy to each crime, as journalists report events with a populist touch. It’s Fox News on auto-speed.
Polly Findlay’s direction is fast-moving and pacy – but there are also moments of silence, and space, when we look into the mind of an assassin.
Delusional and immature, each harbours a deep desire to be noticed, because, as Byck says, “Nobody listens”. A telling line is borrowed from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid” to the little people who (borrowing this time from Henry David Thoreau) “lead lives of quiet desperation”.
The production is timely – mirroring a culture in which anyone, no matter how talentless, can become rich and famous. “The usherette is a rock star” goes a lyric.
There are comedic moments in this dark piece. Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as the hopelessly incompetent housewife-turned-assassin Sara Jane Moore, who is at risk of shooting everyone except her target.
Danny Mac is superb as John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, in a strong cast in which there is no weak link.
Lizzie Clachan’s set, Gregory Clarke’s sound design, Richard Howell’s lighting design and Jo Cichonska’s music direction combine beautifully to convey the strong political message of this spectacular production.
Playing at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 24, 1.45 hours without interval.
Review by Margaret Evans