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The Watermill Theatre, Newbury
BASED on the US precept that anyone can become president but if you can’t then you can always shoot one, it’s little wonder that Stephen Sondheim’s provocative 1991 musical, launched in the middle of the US’s first gulf war, should have been poorly received and has never been among his most popular hits.
Yet the show has become ever more relevant as the US sinks deeper into its grotesque gun culture, captured in the car sticker: “God, guns and guts made America great. Let’s keep it that way.”
Very few of the 45 US presidents to date have avoided assassination attempts. Here a selection of nine, book-ended by the iconic pair of marksmen — Lincoln’s nemesis, John Wilkes Booth and JFK’s, Lee Harvey Oswald — are given a platform to present their case.
Set in a fairground and punctuated with a mix of country and western music and folk ballads, the characters are sold their guns and set on their ways.
This co-production with Nottingham Playhouse, directed by Bill Buckhurst, enhances the Watermill’s reputation for staging knockout musicals on its tiny stage in what’s a hugely engaging history lesson with a difference.
Wilkes Booth frustratedly tries to explain his political motives to the Balladeer: “Damn you, Lincoln, and damn the day you threw the U out of the USA,” with the latter presenting the manufactured opinions and attitudes of the US public throughout.
As the various “villains” of US mythology reveal their motivations — frustrated ambition, stomach problems, thwarted love and, most significantly, the experiences of working-class exploitation and the teachings of the early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman inspiring Leon Czolgosz to do for president William McKinley — we come to sympathise with this family of lost souls betrayed by the American Dream and its mantra that “everybody’s got the right to be happy.”
A superb multi-talented cast, nearly all playing instruments, carry this production on its jaunty wave. As they do so, they reveal the self-destructive demon at the heart of US society — “Guns don’t kill people. Americans do,” as film-maker Michael Moore says.
Runs until October 26, box office: watermill.org.uk, then transfers to Nottingham Playhouse.
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