Gore Vidal’s play of the battle between corrupt and honest (or less corrupt) politics of the 1960s still resonates today as it has done under different guises throughout the ages.
Richard III, the West Wing, House of Cards, the Thick of It. They all carry similar themes, but the Best Man takes us to the heart of how candidates are selected to become the representative of a party in the US presidential elections. Something we seem to ask a lot this side of the pond. Who…? How on earth…?
This production at the Playhouse Theatre has assembled a stellar cast to play the fictional characters. That fiction means you won’t necessarily know the result before it arrives and you will have no plot spoilers from me today.
The one big advantage of placing your story in the convention hotel where the party is meeting to choose its candidate is that all the rooms look the same. So you only need to change the people inhabiting it to change the scene, and that was done with swift expertise throughout. That gave this witty production a pace which one imagines would be similar to that experienced at a real world event – even if the truth is a little slower.
Martin Shaw appears to be Vidal’s favoured candidate – as was JFK until he fell out of love with him – but he is the flawed Secretary of State, Bill Russel. Certainly a womaniser. Possibly with mental health problems. His opponent, Senator Joe Cantwell is played by Jeff Fahey (an American actor with an American accent just about as believable as Shaw’s) as a brash, do anything, shaft anyone to win sort of guy – who could that be? Certainly this is played as good against evil. We are more used to bad against slightly less bad.
The battle for votes is adjudicated by the dying former President played by Jack Shepherd who fails to declare his support for one or the other before expiring without influencing the vote one way or the other. When they came to take their curtain call Shepherd still looked at death’s door, so he’d obviously put a lot into his performance.
As in many political tales of this era, the real business is done by the men, the candidates and their campaign managers. The women – the wives, the representative of the women’s caucus – are the bright lights which illuminate the murkier politics. But they do reflect their male counterparts – slightly good, slightly bad, slightly vacillating. Maureen Lipman in particular has an archly comic presence as the voice of women’s suffrage, Sue-Ellen Gamadge. She could easily have morphed into Lady Bracknell at any time.
Running at two hours 30minutes, for some reason it had a start time of 7.45pm so it was touch and go for the train home at a reasonable hour. Nevertheless, a tight production of a classic play. At times tense, always smart and witty, occasionally laugh out loud. And with a neat twist (no plot spoilers). Well worth seeing.