Assassins, Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 19.

“I shall be remembered,” cries Charlie Guiteau as he dances his way to the scaffold, singing a plaintive hymn of his own devising. Charlie who? History can be cruel to those who seek to make their mark by whatever means possible. We may remember the effect of their actions but precisely who they were and the reason they did what they did? Not so much.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (1990) throws together a motley band of successful and would-be killers of US presidents and assesses them against the unforgiving standards of American exceptionalism. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the opening number asserts, by which is meant the right to be noticed, be taken seriously, make a mark, be someone, be famous.

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

The right to bear arms makes the pursuit of those goals just that bit easier. Some things never grow old. (Guiteau, by the way, was one of the winners, despatching James Garfield in 1881 partly because Garfield ignored his desire to be US ambassador to France.)

Assassins is explicitly set in a fairground shooting gallery, evocatively designed by Alicia Clements (set and costumes) and Ross Graham (lights) as a dark, seedy dump with touches of tawdry glamour. The action sits outside of time and place. Here, in a hallucinatory present, presidential murderers and wannabes from elder statesman John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln, 1865) to John Hinckley Jr (Ronald Reagan, 1981) get to explain themselves, mix and mingle a little and maybe get a little understanding.

Dean Bryant’s production of this rarely seen Sondheim comes very close to being great. The crack team includes a terrific five-piece band under Andrew Warboys’s direction and Andrew Hallsworth as the very fine choreographer. The cast couldn’t be better and the staging expertly walks the tightrope between black humour and coruscating anger and back again.

The themes have certainly not worn out their welcome. Like the tolling of a muffled bell, certain words repeat throughout Assassins. “Never, never, never.” “Nothing, nothing, nothing no good.” “No one listens.” “I am nothing.” Not. No. For all their delusions and misguided passions, these flawed souls have a powerful point about life’s injustices.

David Campbell in ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

David Campbell in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

It’s just a pity Bryant doesn’t let their carnival masks slip more often. Assassins would be more potent for it. His Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered at the Hayes early last year, was pitch-perfect; Assassins occasionally less than that, including the final image, which offers an easy laugh but not a dramatically satisfying reason for being in a work that gives the deplorables their moment in the sun.

The extraordinary 11-member cast otherwise knocks it out of the park. Each one deserves nothing but superlatives. Kate Cole and Hannah Fredericksen form a wacky double act as Sarah Jane Moore and Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. They each attempted to kill Gerald Ford in 1975 within three weeks of each other, as unsuccessful in handling a gun as Ford was in winning respect. Connor Crawford is the unnervingly self-effacing Hinckley, who shot and injured Ronald Reagan in an effort to win Jodie Foster’s attention.

Martin Crewes as Guiseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley, 1901) make their anarchist firebrands worthy of our consideration and compassion. Justin Smith’s tremendously good Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon, 1974) is the epitome of madness masquerading as reason. “I’m talking, you’re listening,” he says. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Well, that’s what they all feel.

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

Newcomer Maxwell Simon is impressive as the sunny balladeer who morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy, 1963) and Bobby Fox’s Guiteau gets the big vaudeville song-and-dance treatment, nailing the number’s frenetic, “it’s showtime” gaiety. Appropriately though, David Campbell (the tightly wound, upright Booth) is first among equals. “The country isn’t what it was,” Booth sings in 1865 and his anguish echoes through the ages.

Rob McDougall gets the show off to a strong start with his laconic, sonorously sung shooting gallery proprietor and Laura Bunting is wonderful in Something just Broke, the song that finally turns the musical’s gaze away from the assassins and towards the ordinary lives they affected.

It’s powerful material despite the occasional clunkiness in Weidman’s book, particularly as Sondheim’s score is hugely effective, co-opting popular musical styles appropriate to each assassin’s era. Good luck with getting Hinckley and Fromme’s soft-rock duet Unworthy of Your Love out of your head.

Tickets: $70-$78. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au. Duration: 1hr 45mins with no interval. Ends October 22.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15.

“I never realise how dead I am until I meet people like you,” says the rather correct “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) to the chatelaine of the unorthodox country house to which he’s been invited for the weekend. Call it the Bliss factor, a tornado-like life force that sweeps up everyone in its path. At least it does in Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating new production of Hay Fever, which director Imara Savage gives an intense, sexy energy that blows away the cobwebs so often clinging to Coward and his 1925 comedy of bad manners.

At the centre of the whirlwind is Judith Bliss (sublime Heather Mitchell), an actress who is nominally retired but has simply transferred her theatrics to a more intimate setting. As we soon discover, each member of the Bliss family has asked a friend to stay without telling the others. They are not natural hosts and are wildly self-dramatising. There will be complications, not the least of which is who will get to stay in the Japanese room.

STC Hay Fever Heather Mitchell. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard’s confession to Judith is the key to this work. Hay Fever celebrates those people in the world who burn more brightly than others because they have fewer limits. They are the sun and we are bits of space junk caught gratefully in their orbit, at least for a while.

When Coward wrote Hay Fever, World War I just a handful of years in the past and the Edwardian era was over. Time to have some fun. Coward was only 24 at the time but had been moving in artistic circles for more than a decade – he was a professional actor from the age of 11 and wrote his first West End play at 20. His family was not well off and Coward was entirely self-made. It’s tempting to think that the get-the-guest antics of the Blisses were inspired not only by Coward’s acquaintance with American actress Laurette Taylor and her games-playing family, but were also a reaction to the days in which his mother had to take in lodgers to make some money.

Coward claimed to have written Hay Fever in three days without revision and there’s no reason to doubt him. That’s not a criticism – he wrote Private Lives in “roughly” four days, by his account – but it does remind us not to get too profound about the piece. Indeed, the superficiality is the point of it and Savage – with one caveat – astutely finds the right tone for today’s audience. Her production is invigoratingly untethered from the 1920s, picking up on the contemporary adoration of self while being not in the slightest bit condemnatory.

The daughter of the family, Sorel (Harriet Dyer), indulges in one or two little shows of conscience, voicing the belief that everyone in the family should behave rather better, but her desire to be a nicer, finer person is more pleasing concept than possibility. Nor should it be. Sorel, played by Dyer with a mixture of whiny childishness and acute perceptiveness, is clever enough to know that “the people we like put up with it because they like us”. It’s an unvirtuous circle. When this lot of guests have gone there will be other willing victims.

STC Hay Fever. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sorel’s brother Simon (Tom Conroy) and she have no visible occupation and still live at home with Judith and their father, David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who writes very bad novels and is not dead, as Judith’s slightly dim young guest and admirer Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) had surmised. David is, in fact, in the house and has invited the naive Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) to the country so he might study her as “a useful type”. That Sorel’s guest is the very Richard who is enchanted by Judith hints at the roundelay that develops, one in which Simon’s sophisticated guest Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) will be discovered by Judith in a compromising position with David. He is lying on top of Myra on the floor.

The teasing Is endless and wickedly manipulative and the guests don’t stand a chance. Nor does the audience really. As Savage showed with last year’s After Dinner, an early comedy by Andrew Bovell (also at STC), she has a great eye for physical comedy and a superb cast to enact it. Richard, for example, gets two of the best sight gags in the show – beautifully played by Dukes – and they give the mature diplomat warmth and colour. Conroy’s Simon plays up his bohemian credentials by drinking wine at breakfast and professing violent love for women despite exuding an air of being not particularly interested in them. Judith is one of the great comic roles in 20th century theatre and Mitchell makes her every whim, tic and idiosyncracy adorable (bar one, but that’s the caveat I’m coming to and it’s not her fault). Mitchell’s pre-Raphaelite beauty is intoxicating, as is her way with a seductive phrase. “I’ve been pruning the calceolarias,” she throatily purrs to Sandy. It’s an invitation to unimagined delights that seduce us all.

In what is perhaps the trickiest role to pull off in this updating, Genevieve Lemon plays Judith’s housekeeper (and former dresser) Clara in the manner of a beloved, eccentric retainer in a conventional British farce. It’s wacky, no doubt about it, but fits in with the idea of theatricality not only as an attribute of the Bliss family but as a style of performance.

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The idea of life as an act is gorgeously reinforced by designer Alicia Clements’s divinely ramshackle conservatory, the centrepiece of which is a claw-foot bath that doubles as a sofa, and the lurid curtains that frame the stage and close at a majestic pace. The boldest example is the inclusion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, lip-synched by Judith in lieu of a lovely little song at the piano. It is a surreal, provocative choice although not necessarily out of keeping with Judith’s mercurial temperament. Less successful – this is the caveat – is Savage’s decision to replace the names of British newspapers with those of Sydney ones. Judith is proposing a return to the stage and speaks of the thrill of a first night, the critics “all leaning forward with flowing faces, receptive and exultant …” Savage has Mitchell address the audience directly here and, just for a moment, the bubble that encloses these characters bursts. The Winehouse song – just – stays inside that bubble.

That seemed to me a misstep in a production where artificiality is so prized. Savage’s brilliant ending says it all. The climactic touch is a halo of light that envelops the Bliss family, accompanied by a lush, golden-days-of-Hollywood swelling of strings. (Trent Suidgeest is responsible for the lighting; Max Lyandvert for sound design and music.) The guests have slipped away and the Blisses are now at their most relaxed and content, a family very much at peace, albeit noisily, with one another in their own little world.

Hay Fever ends on May 21.