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FringeReview UK 2017

The Best Man

Bill Kenwright

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Simon Evans directs a taut production as Michael Taylor’s set with corridors furnishes action. Chris Davey’s lights convey the glare of a hotel with mere rags of privacy; Ed Lewis’s sound and composition completes a horribly accurate bustle. Till September 30th.


Imagine an aspiring MP and insider writing a drama on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election as it happened. Novelist, essayist and playwright Gore Vidal twice ran for a Democratic senator, once in the year his play The Best Man was set, 1960.


These are real people chasing the presidential nomination. Hero William Russell’s based on liberal intellectual Adlai Stevenson. Joseph Cantwell his rival boasts better remembered models: JFK, his brother Bobby, Senator McCarthy, Richard Nixon. Bar already-dead McCarthy, they probably saw the play. Vidal knew his libel and we shudder at some prescient lines. Here’s Russell contradicting his namesake for prophesy:


‘Bertrand Russell said, ‘people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one.’ Actually, it’s the other way around. It’s the stupid man.’ Vidal trumps us every time. How we miss him.


Simon Evans directs a taut Bill Kenwright production as Michael Taylor’s set with corridors, flashing lights and two suites with quick-change placards, cushions and a blaring TV furnish action. It’s plushed to French doors up centre where private rooms are gauzed off. Sometimes ex-presidents enter them surreptitiously. Chris Davey’s lights convey the glare of a hotel with mere rags of privacy; Ed Lewis’s sound and composition completes a horribly accurate bustle.


Martin Shaw’s Senator Russell is given to one-liners. His long-estranged wife Alice (expertly poised Glynis Barber) remarks of their front of togetherness: ‘As someone sooner or later is bound to say, ‘politics makes strange bedfellows.’’ Shaw’s put-down: ‘I was hoping it wouldn’t be you who said it’ is characteristic of him and Vidal.


Clearly Russell’s too clever by three quarters and Shaw’s portrayal recalls some other American roles (like The Country Girl) in the wiry intelligence he brings, the edginess of temper just controlled under the urbanity, ready to break out as he suffers fools. He has to of course, for instance the formidable co-ordinator of women’s votes; Mrs. Gamadge, played with a steely magnolia charm by Gemma Jones ‘The only known link between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan’ as Russell apostrophises her.


Jones brokers meetings between the two candidates’ wives, Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks, Indeed as Alice Russell reminds Mabel Cantwell ‘intelligence doesn’t rub off’ denying her husband passes it to her, or indeed she to Mabel. It is in fact Barber’s character who has the final word in the play, where the title comes from. It’s fitting as she carries the distance from estrangement to something very different throughout the play, and has the chance to fall in love again. Barber exudes this in a quiet matt brilliance.


Weeks’ a blonde Jacqueline Kennedy: a delight of a role, though we’re not treated to Weeks’ prized subtlety and understatement here. Her accent’s as impeccable as the Cockney she used in Pygmalion or Witness for the Prosecution back in 2010; her capacity for inhabiting roles completely at odds with her screen persona is still under-celebrated.


Jack Shepherd’s Art Hockstader is different to other irritating hacks. He was President, and enters incognito with a secret, as well as keeping another about whom he’ll endorse as presidential candidate. Shepherd relishes Hockstader’s wisecracking power-broker, a man interested in the right man, not good one. ‘Now, I am here to tell you this, that power is not a toy that we give to good children. It’s a weapon, and the strong man takes it and he uses it…. To want power is corruption already.’ Russell has many witty lines, Hockstader the most devastating, and he delivers them through a mask of pain since Hockstader’s taking tablets. Religion was in temporary abeyance in 1960, and Vidal delights in its (temporary) absence from the political stage. ‘Oh well, the world’s sure changed since I was politickin’. In those days, we had to pour God over everything like ketchup.’


Jeff Fahey’s blisteringly convincing as Cantwell (the clue’s in the name), a cocktail of two presidents, one presidential candidate and a man who gave a decade a bad name in McCarthyism. Fahey’s persona delivers no wit, merely a ferocious absailing on the summit jagging cramphorns into people’s faces. His voice is a blowtorch, and Fahey’s good at exuding danger, the man who took on a slice of Sicilian mafia only to deliberately avoid annoying the most powerful Godfathers. He understands only realpolitik, and Fahey relishes the chance to change register into the thinly oliagenous charm, a mere rainbow oil-film of a smile recalling Russell’s jibe about such things: ‘Is there anything more indecent than the human face when it smiles? All those predatory teeth reminding us of our animal descent.’


The aides are neatly polarised. Cantwell’s campaign manager Jim Creighton’s Don Blades acts like the older strategist holding his young buck back, a kind of smooth snarling Southerner. In contrast, Russell’s is younger: Anthony Howell’s smooth campaign manager Dick Jenson is pulling out his hair. It’s an excellent study in calibrated panic.


The crux of the drama is that Cantwell’s behind, though might have Hockstader’s preference. He’s got hold of something on Russell though, to force him to pull out. It’s beyond even Hockstader’s rules. Now Hockstader castigates both equally. To Cantwell he rounds first: ‘There are no ends, Joe, only means.’ Hockstader later adds: ‘Y’know, it’s not that I object to your being a bastard, don’t get me wrong there. It’s your being such a stupid bastard that I object to.’


Then through the unexpected guise of David Tarkenter’s down-at-soul Sheldon Marcus, Russell finds a weapon that explodes Cantwell. But will he use it? Hockstader’s clear about weapons of course, and predictable. Russell isn’t.


Sometimes you wish an off-stage character would emerge, to deserve such lines as Russell of a power-broking senator: ‘T.T. Claypoole has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.’ As it is his anxious friend Dr Artinian played by Ian Houghton fills in backstory, Craig Pinder’s Senator Carlin trims wonderfully loudly, filled out by Simon Hepworth as a delegate traipsing on and off. Emma Campbell-Jones as Catherine opens and closes as a maid but in between blossoms as a green-dressed PA whom Vidal suggests might just be one of the many women Russell has pursued. There’s enough residual wisdom here to make you wonder what life will do with these characters afterwards. And enough political wisdom to make you wince at the relevance on show here. It’s a cruel joke Vidal died shortly before the era of Trump. How cruelly he’d have joked about it. But we have this classic political thriller. It’ll last, horribly.