* * * * (4 stars)
Years ago, I told a politically astute colleague how I thought our, then, Prime Minister seemed a nice guy. She retorted: ‘no person who attains that level of power is nice. They’re all ruthless and self-serving.’ Gore Vidal’s absorbing play, currently at The Playhouse, makes this point with wit and a raft of excellent performances from a cast of fifteen, in a classy revival.
Set, and successfully, staged in 1960 at the time of the Democratic Convention, The Best Man was one of four plays Vidal wrote. It was turned into a film starring Henry Fonda, four years later. Considered for a long while to be of little interest to British audiences, it now resonates with our, almost, unhealthy obsession with anything to do with the USA – especially its President. But, however amusingly, the play also makes serious points about Western political machinery that are as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.
In an - unnamed - party’s struggle to nominate a contender for the US presidency, the nice guy is William Russell, an esteemed US ex-Secretary of State; his unscrupulous opponent, a populist newcomer, Joseph Cantwell. See what I mean? Russell was, in fact, inspired by Vidal’s hero Adlai Stevenson, whilst less pleasant characteristics of Richard Nixon (whom he loathed) and Kennedy (in whom he later became disillusioned) form part of Cantwell’s make up. The homosexuality theme, too, could also reflect the predilections of the infamous Joe McCarthy, if cynically, as Vidal was a declared gay man himself. Yet, in his programme note the production’s director, Simon Evans, makes it clear that, whilst Vidal drew on characteristics of contemporary American politicians, his characters do not directly mirror them per se.
The axis of the plot hinges on which of the men can out-smear the other, to go forward in the campaign. If to our current ears, every other line resonates with the mud-slinging antics of Trump versus Clinton eighteen months ago, its caustic sparring matches between the two candidates and the terminally ill soon-to-be ex-president, Hockstader, have less to do with governing than amoral one-up man-ship.
Ultimately the play asks us to recognise, what Evans refers to as, the ‘illusion of democracy.’ The ideals we like to think our nations live by have become corrupted. Dramatically speaking, the catfights are entertaining, but the question we are left with is: what qualities make the ‘best’ national leaders?
As the academic Russell, Martin Shaw gives a beautifully modulated performance, letting the character’s integrity shine through his calm reasoning and then, occasionally, blossom effectively into righteous indignation. Jeff Fahey provides a balanced foil as the unprincipled, self-made Cantwell. Both characters are well-partnered by their ‘wives’: Glynis Barber being outstanding as Alice Russell, graciously supporting her seemingly unfaithful, always-on-the-verge-of-being ex-husband, whilst Honeysuckle Weeks nicely captures the loyal, but somewhat vulgar blonde babe, Mabel Cantwell.
Maureen Lipman makes two scenery-chewing appearances as the monstrous powerful lady, Mrs Gamadge, who does for the Women of America what Hedda Hopper did for Hollywood, but whose endorsement both men require. Playing Ex-President Hockstader, the great Jack Shepherd gives a barnstorming performance, whilst the rest of the hardworking cast provides a well-drilled ensemble of cameos as party workers and a chorus of reporters. Particularly effective is David Tarkenter as the timid Sheldon Marcus, a contemporary of Cantwell’s in the military during the war, and whose ‘evidence’ of the latter’s choice of lovers at that time, could wreck his chances of staying in the race.
On one level the production revives a well-made play from the literate, gracious theatrical days of yesteryear. On another, it is bang up-to-date. Deftly directed by Evans, Michael Taylor’s tasteful set serves as the protagonists’ Philadelphia hotel suites, whilst his costumes capture the fussy-formality – along with the immaculate hairdos – of women’s fashions at the start of a decade still to loosen-up. There is also a superb lighting design by Chris Davey.
Bill Kenwright is to be commended for rediscovering this wise and entertaining play, and for letting us see it in the West End.