The audience enters the Menier Chocolate Factory through a massive cartoon mouth leading to a derelict fairground, with seating on either side of a stage containing an abandoned dodgem car and an over-large clown’s head lying on its side. A spooky and hideous fairground Proprietor (Simon Lipkin) constantly reappears from the shadows, always on the edge. But Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins is no fairground ride.

Assassins is a disturbing and intense show, which runs straight through at just under two hours, and is a kind of musicalised study of those outcasts who have tried to kill various American presidents. These include John Wilkes Booth (who shot President Lincoln during a visit to the theatre), Samuel Byck (who planned to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House to kill President Nixon) and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President Kennedy dead in November 1963.

Assassins is actually quite difficult viewing at times as it’s a dark and uneasy piece, and there are elements of chaos in it too. There are, of course, lighter moments but Jamie Lloyd’s production merges the different moments monotonously, rather than deciphering them or guiding the audience with visual clues. ‘Bystanders’ from the chorus are placed at either end of the traverse stage, although they are not always easily seen or distinguished, and need to be integrated into the action more.

A Sondheim production at the Menier Chocolate Factory – home to successful revivals of Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George which all transferred further afield – has inevitably attracted a diverse range of sound ‘names’ in what is very much an ensemble piece.

Mike McShane puts in an enjoyable performance as Samuel Byck, dressed as Father Christmas. There’s a good scene for musical theatre lovers in which Byck extols the virtues of Leonard Bernstein with a choreographed reference to ‘America’ from his greatest hit, West Side Story too.

Catherine Tate appears in her first musical role as Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Tate plays the role as...well, Tate – it’s a caricature that is too close to one of her usual TV personas and draws unnecessary attention to her presence on stage.

Broadway star Aaron Tveit – the heart-throb hero of Next to Normal – plays a laid-back John Wilkes Booth, and sings the role well, while Jamie Parker puts in a good turn as the banjo-playing Balladeer, then morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald.

It certainly helps if you know either the piece or your American history well enough to be able to follow the succession of both assassins and the assassinated – I needed to cross reference the progamme several times during the course of the evening. It is also one of Sondheim’s more musically difficult scores, though there are plenty of good tunes – Carly Bawden stands out amongst the female cast as Lynette Frome and her rendition of ‘Unworthy of your love’ was a nicely understated duet with Harry Morrison’s John Hinckley.

Lloyd’s darkly-lit production is certainly atmospheric – the characters lurk around the audience and madness and evil are never far away. In these days when the threat of terrorism is ever closer, it’s quite chilling. But despite some good acting performances and a great design, this production doesn’t quite hit the heights of its composers’ predecessors at the same venue, but is certainly worth ticking off the Sondheim list.