The Best Man (Richmond Theatre)

The Best Man (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, October 7th and touring)

A hard-fought American Democratic Presidential nomination race between a likeable candidate with ethics and principles and a populist and bigoted one with no scruples…

Not a brief description of any recent US election, but the background to Gore Vidal’s timely and timeless 1960 play The Best Man, which has been revived in a slick and humorous production now on a national tour.

Given that when the film version opened four years later critics were claiming that it was dated – the original had been modelled on the Democratic national convention nomination race between John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson – it is amazing, if not also a little chilling, to find the play with so many contemporary parallels and with so much relevance today.

An extraordinarily strong cast has been assembled for this production, so there is never any danger of the acting being less than top notch and the drama engrossing. Director Simon Evans manages to find a new depth to Vidal’s seminal work, which turns the whole world of politics into a global dystopia.

Martin Shaw continues to demonstrate his skill in selecting stage roles by giving a stand-out performance as Secretary William Russell, the ambitious and idealistic candidate, whose intellect and dry sense of humour threatens to be off-putting to an electorate seeking a pragmatic and plain-speaking representative. Shaw’s well-crafted Russell remains the gentleman and statesman, even when his opponent launches a dirty tricks campaign.

As his long-suffering wife, Alice, who has had to endure her husband’s string of meaningless affairs, Glynis Barber is ice cool and determined, unwilling to pass by her chance of reflected glory on the political stage, but supportive enough of her husband to recognise and applaud his eventual stance.

Jeff Fahey is in strong form as Russell’s opponent Senator Joseph Cantwell, ruthless and opportunistic, an all-too-familiar political character who comes across as a man of the people yet may have his own skeletons in the closet. Honeysuckle Weeks makes the very best of his graceless and ambitious wife, Mabel, teetering on the brink of caricature yet managing to stay this side of believable – a recognisable personality in the present day world of foolish media-created celebrities.

Jack Shepherd delivers a powerful performance as the ailing ex-President Hockstader, shrewd and calculating, with a cynical personal agenda, gleefully refereeing the contest, while Gemma Jones is perfect as the acidic and brassy Mrs Gamadge, a manipulative party grande dame. Good support too from Anthony Howell as Russell’s canny campaign manager.

Praise too for all members of the cast playing the greedy press, constantly baying for political blood at the door and always asking the most awkward questions.

Michael Taylor’s convention hotel room set doesn’t quite seem to fit on the stage at Richmond and there were a few instances of stuck doors and wobbly walls on first night. The device of changing scene by a couple of convention rallyists walking across stage with large placards or slogan boards becomes clumsy.

The Best Man is probably a pleasant surprise to audiences unfamiliar with Vidal’s plays and unused to seeing such a product of its time bursting with au courant references. It is a production of integrity and intensity, boldly allowing the play to speak volumes through the decades.

At the end of the play, Martin Shaw stepped forward and invited the audience to join the cast in keeping silence for the victims of that day’s shootings in Las Vegas. Given the hard core of the piece we had just sat through this seemed to provide an extra layer of comment on the state of America today, certainly more significant than any news report could hope to manage.

David Guest

Picture, Geraint Lewis