Wednesday, 4 October 2017

REVIEW: The Best Man at the Richmond Theatre

Gore Vidal’s 1960 Tony award nominated play The Best Man has been given a UK premiere by Bill Kenwright with an all star stellar cast of well known television drama actors and appears to be packing in audiences in its short south of England tour. Set is the hotel suites of two of the three candidates for nomination in the US presidential primaries it a well written and well acted production. Although the original play was a thinly veiled attack on the actual candidates for the 1960 Democratic convention and the votes chasing in the US electoral delegate system is alien to a British audience, the melodramatic structure works well to create an enjoyable and entertaining drama. The recent events in the US presidential elections between Clinton and Trump make this seem as relevant today as when it is set.

What makes this production buzz and enthral the audience is the central performances of the five main characters battling for the nomination, the two candidates, their wives and the “kingmaker” former President whose endorsement they all seek. Martin Shaw is majestic as Secretary William Russell, the candidate with principles and integrity but with dark secrets that you can feel just below the surface of his otherwise controlled poker faced and intelligent persona. When he is on stage with the wonderful Jack Shepherd, as the elder statesman and former president Hockstader, the drama is spell binding. Both are compelling watching and completely convincing. The rival candidate Jo Cantwell is played by the American Jeff Fahey. He is unscrupulous, conniving and unable to read people and we naturally dislike him although he does not present the image of Kennedy on whom he is based reflecting Vidal’s dislike of him.

As in the 1960 election and the more recent one, the candidate’s partners play crucial roles in the winning and losing of the states votes and Vidal has created two polar opposites to support their partners and fight the battle in their own way. Honeysuckle Weeks plays Mabel Cantwell, the young attractive southern belle who is equally ambitious and scheming as her husband, although despite her American accent, occasionally her intonation and phrasing still sounded like Sam from the excellent Foyle’s war series! The contrast with the opposing wife is wonderfully drawn out in the scene where they meet the media together and Glynis Barber as Alice Russell can’t get a word in although we are in no doubt it would be infinitely more interesting! Barber is cold and reluctant but despite everything supports her husband. These central five are supported by a large touring cast of 13 including Gemma Jones as the influential Mrs Gamadge, Anthony Howell (another from Foyle’s War)as Dick Jenson, Russell’s campaign manager, Jim Creighton as Don Blades (Cantwell’s manager) and David Tarkenter in the small but pivotal part of Marcus Sheldon. 

The staging switches from one suite (474) to another (674) and back with a change of cushions, bedspreads and posters although neither suite looks presidential being crammed into the stage with a curious entrance through the bathroom and the outside corridor remains on the sixth floor!

It is odd that this fine play has waited so long for its UK premiere and then should be such a short tour of 5 playhouses. Its Americanisms don’t detract and with Trump raging daily, you wish the current President might follow the advice given here “no more jokes, project blandness” and that integrity might drive politicians rather than vote catching slogans, impossible promises, and negative campaigns. Regrettably too often one feels that Hockstader’s view that “just because he is a bastard does not mean he is not a good candidate” prevails.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★
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