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Published on Friday, 16 August 2013

4 stars

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (venue website)
12-17, 19-23 Aug, 2:15pm-3:45pm
Reviewed by Ellen Macpherson

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

For a student of politics and history like me, there could barely be a more appealing show than Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. I know almost every political assassination like the back of my hand, and I’m a huge fan of musicals when I'm not stuck poring over my textbooks. Coupled with the fact that I’ve seen and loved Cambridge’s forays into Fringe theatre in the past few years, I got to Surgeon's Hall buzzing with excitement at this latest musical adaptation, which bridges the line between comedy and drama seamlessly. The only flaws I really found were not a fault of CUADC, but of the original musical itself (she says, as they cry blasphemy!)

If you’ve previously been unaware of its existence, Assassins is set in a vintage fairground shooting gallery - an ingenious and entertaining background for the action. We are taken through the journey of nine potential assassins as they play the carnival game. These are real people, amongst them famous figures including John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. But nine does make for a lot of stories to follow, and occasionally the musical jumps around quite a bit - not always in a logical manner. I’m sympathetic to the fact that this was a feature of the original show’s plot, but the cuts CUADC make to shorten the show to fringe length don’t particularly help; with each character acting as a 'ghost' after their deaths or departures, there seems to perpetually be just a few too many on stage trying to steal the thunder of the others.

The characters (or more accurately, caricatures) are all extremely well-played. Lee Harvey Oswald is a possible exception to that, but the lack of historical closure in this specific case excuses both the original and CUADC’s adaptation for making Oswald a little vapid. The Balladeer and Oswald (who are, in modern tradition, played by the same person) were a little shaky vocally, but this was opening night, so some stage nerves are to be expected.

In contrast, the absolute show-stopper for me was the phenomenal shooting gallery proprietor, played with zeal and theatricality by Matt Elliot-Ripley. Elliot-Ripley's vocals are astonishing, and he steals the show from the get-go, before even finishing my favourite opening line: "Hey pal, feelin' blue? Don't know what to do? Hey pal, I mean you... come here and kill a president!" Special mention must also go to Aydan Greatrick's John Wilkes Booth, who remained absolutely captivating both musically and theatrically.

Whether you’ve seen it before or are coming into it as a first-timer, you’ll find this production wickedly entertaining. It may not be for you if you avoid politics and history (or America) like the plague; but if you’re a fan of a good historical satire, you can’t miss this one. With strong musical performances and outrageous theatricality, presidential assassinations have never seemed so much fun!

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