Review: The Best Man (Playhouse Theatre)

Gore Vidal’s political drama opens in the West End

Gore Vidal’s absorbing, witty 1960 play centres on two flawed politicians vying for the presidential candidacy within an unnamed party. Set in a series of plush Philadelphia hotel suites where we are privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations and mud slinging that attends such high stakes politicking, it feels, despite the opulent period designs of Michael Taylor and the '60s rock'n'roll that blasts through the theatre during scene changes, prescient and fairly relevant.

Although both men have their issues (Martin Shaw’s finely acted William Russell has a history of mental fragility and sexual promiscuity while Jeff Fahey’s tricky Senator Cantwell will use any trick to get to where he needs to be), Vidal’s script clearly favours Russell. Simon Evans’ production takes this even further by making Cantwell a vulgarian Trump-like figure, played like an Americanised pantomime villain by Fahey. While this is certainly entertaining, it unbalances the play to such an extent that there is no question whatsoever as to where our sympathies should lie. This deprives the story of some of its tension, despite the inclusion of a physically disintegrating former President (Jack Shepherd, magnificent) who vacillates amusingly between the two men with his support.

The women in the piece are interesting but have too little stage time. Glynis Barber does lovely, selfless work as Russell’s smart, sensitive but strong wife, standing steadfastly by her man despite their wintry marriage, and Maureen Lipman delivers a masterclass in truthful comedy playing, as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a wealthy, genteel but steely spokesperson for the women’s vote. Honeysuckle Weeks is disappointingly colourless as Cantwell’s permanently tipsy trophy wife.

In the predominantly male supporting cast David Tarkenter is especially good as a former army colleague of Cantwell’s, newly arrived in town to denounce him but suddenly in terror at the prospect of facing him.

The penultimate curtain call which sees the three male leads back-slappingly taking applause from the house, the complete lack of ethnic diversity in the casting (the 2012 Broadway revival had James Earl Jones as the ex-President) and the marginalised female characters combine to give the whole production an uneasily reactionary feel that may prove insurmountable to some theatregoers.

The set is attractive but too often principal actors are placed way upstage behind sofas and even a bed, with some loss of audibility and theatrical tension. Despite this and other reservations, The Best Man is thought-provoking and moderately gripping. Few actors can convey kindly rectitude as convincingly as Shaw, and he is superbly supported by Barber, Lipman and Shepherd. "Power is not a toy we give to good children, it is a weapon" says the former President at one point, and given the present political climate in America, that feels chillingly accurate.

The Best Man runs until 12 May.