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The Best Man review at Playhouse Theatre, London – ‘pertinent political satire’

Martin Shaw and Maureen Lipman in The Best Man at Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Martin Shaw and Maureen Lipman in The Best Man at Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Written in 1960, Gore Vidal’s play about American politics and populism still feels dismayingly accurate in its account of how political campaigns are conducted.

Former Secretary of State William Russell (Martin Shaw) is a contender for Democratic presidential candidate. Harvard-educated, he is a man of principle and intellect, given to quoting Bertrand Russell in press conferences. But a few years ago he had a nervous breakdown and he has concealed this from the public. He’s standing against southern senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey), a man of faith, upright and family-focused – a self-made man, an ordinary, electable guy.

Vidal’s play explores the machine of American political campaigning in pleasing detail, the impulse to “pour God over everything”, the game-playing and horse-trading that goes on as the two men sit ensconced in their hotel rooms, the press huddled outside, expectant.

While Cantwell is happy to use Russell’s mental health issues against him, Russell is more reluctant to use the “dirt” he has on Cantwell in the same way. Both men are angling for an endorsement from the ailing, outgoing president Art Hockstader. Jack Shepherd invests this role with warmth and poignancy. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Frasier’s dad, Martin Crane, if he’d gone into politics instead of the police force. Shepherd’s tie hangs loose at his neck and he is forever fiddling with his dentures. Beneath this amiable exterior he evokes a sense of a man slowly facing up to his mortality.

The roles of the wives – made accessories to their husbands’ ambitions – are sympathetically written and performed. The philandering Russell has a “separate rooms/separate lives” arrangement with his wife Alice, but this doesn’t erase their shared history, the weight of all their years together. Glynis Barber brings out the role’s emotional complexity, and her sense of loyalty and affection for the man she once loved and still admires, while Honeysuckle Weeks does well with the more thinly written role of Centwell’s wife.

Shaw does a very solid job as he dignified Russell. Fahey has the showier role as Cantwell, but he’s oddly subdued in it. Maureen Lipman is very entertaining as the acid Mrs Gamadge, forcefully telling the men in suits what “the women” will find acceptable, but it’s little more than a cameo.

Simon Evans’ production, arriving in the West End after a tour, feels exposed on the West End stage. There may be echoes of the West Wing in the set-up and the dialogue but whereas Aaron Sorkin had his trademark walk-and-talks, this is more a case of sit-and talk. Michael Taylor’s cream-coloured generic hotel room set feels flimsy, with a few pasteboard banners and a canopy of newspaper clippings providing the only colour.

There are a lot of interesting ideas at play here. The ethics, or otherwise, of smear campaigns, the face that politicians are obliged to present to the world, the standards they’re required to uphold. But the production is never more than functional, at best. There’s little tension, little sense of the world outside this Philadelphia hotel room, and little sense of satiric attack, whether aimed at the Kennedys or the current incumbents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Pertinent, if inert, staging of Gore Vidal’s satirical play about the machine of US political campaigning