Some might say that producer Peter Huntley ought to be the Southwark Playhouse's in-house producer, judging by the quality of the productions he chooses to put on there. After such joys as The Belle's Strategem and Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Huntley returns to the Playhouse with gripping political thriller Farragut North.
Beau Willimon's tightly written play is all about behind-the-scenes machinations in American politics, focusing in on 25-year-old press secretary Stephen Bellamy (Max Irons), ensconced in the nadir of a campaign for potential presidential candidate Paul Zara (Shaun Williamson – excellent), ruthless yet jovial, almost hiding his flaws in plain sight. At 25 Stephen is already almost past it, his 20-something deputy Ben (Josh O'Connor) sweet and meek on the surface, but ever so ready to take the reins.
We start when things are going well, the upcoming election looking an easy win, so it's no surprise that things start to slip; watching someone unravel shouldn't be so much fun. Irons does a great, subtle job of this, making Stephen smart and in control one minute, spiralling out of it the next, his puppyish behaviour with intern Molly (Aysha Kala) showing how little opportunity he's had to grow up outside of this great game ("What do I have to fall back on?/I've been working in politics since I was fifteen years old").
Rachel Tucker is perfectly cast as hard-bitten journalist Ida Horowicz, friendly when it suits her, but always ready to take the story over anything else ("Do you really want this story getting out?/I'm giving you a choice here"). Ida is a great counterpoint to Stephen – he thinks he can play her, but she ends up playing him. "Don't listen to her," Stephen says early on, exemplifying the relationship between the media and those who need it, but don't really understand those who work in it, "she gets paid to spoil the fun".
As intern Molly, who finds herself bound up in the intricacies of the campaign in a rather unsavoury way, Aysha Kala has good chemistry with Irons, but there's a lack of emotional depth in her reactions, meaning that the relationship between the two is nowhere near as sparky and ambiguous as it needs to be. However, this is something that Andrew Whipp manages to do with aplomb as rival press secretary Tom Duffy, who comes across as hugely charismatic and just an inch off villainous. Perfect.
Sound from Pete Malkin and lighting by Richard Howell keep things bouncing along nicely, and combined with a great script that builds tension and keeps the pace, this is the kind of play you'll see once and want to go straight back for more. A round of drinks for everyone.