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Stephen Sondheim’s musical has always been a meditation on the shadowy underside of the American dream; it took Sam Mendes’ 1992 production at London’s Donmar Warehouse, with its expert blend of the underlying bleakness with self-ironising razzle-dazzle, to get the show recognised as one of the composer’s finest.
Jamie Lloyd’s revival just as consciously eschews both razzle and dazzle. Soutra Gilmour’s traverse set design of a dilapidated carnival strung with dim lights sets the tone; when the figure of the Proprietor emerges from a huge clown’s head to peddle guns to a collection of assassins and wannabes throughout American presidential history, he is wearing even more grotesque clown make-up himself and growls his number rather than crooning it.
This is almost shocking, not because it is not being done “properly” but because that balance between the dream and the reality, which has always seemed to be the work’s thesis, is so out of whack. Gradually, however, it comes to seem grimly natural. Twenty years on, we see an America – a world – where the glitter of the dream, its aspirational nobility, has perished like an old balloon, leaving only strident expectation and demand, the naked refrain of “Where’s my prize?” that punctuates the number “Another National Anthem”. When “Squeaky” Fromme and John Hinckley Jr (failed assassins of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan respectively) sing the big romantic duet “Unworthy of Your Love” to pictures of their idols, Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, the song now sounds as hollow as their fixations. Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau (who shot James Garfield) no longer charms by cakewalking up the scaffold singing “I am going to the Lordy”, rather his insane ebullience unsettles us.
The only seriously flawed note is struck by Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore (another failed Ford gunwoman). Moore is the show’s most straightforward comic character, but Tate’s considerable talents as a comedy actor seem now to have subsided into Catherine Tating every role she is given. It is almost a relief to return to the murky view of a world in which assassination is now the only viable, perhaps the only rational, option.