Almost exactly 58 years after its Broadway premiere, Gore Vidal's The Best Man finally receives its long-overdue first West End outing, and it couldn't be more timely or pertinent. After we witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the 2016 US presidential primaries that saw Donald Trump become the Republican Party's candidate to run for - and win - the Presidency, this play is startling in its thrilling topicality as a win-at-any-cost candidate is pitted against a much more principled one, albeit one with his own potentially damaging secrets.
While the long-running TV series The West Wing provided a glimpse behind the White House windows and Michael Wolff's recent book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, offers a scalding, salacious account of today, The Best Man turns a 1960 presidential nomination battle into a riveting political thriller.
As the current incumbent of the White House rides roughshod over all the norms that have gone before, this play provides a reminder that politics has always been a dirty business with rival candidates using any means possible to discredit and undermine each other. But if Senator Joseph Cantwell is prepared to go as low as he can, his rival William Russell, a former secretary of state and governor for Rhode Island, is more conflicted over whether he will use similar tactics when he is presented with information that could fatally undermine his rival.
This battle of political wills, ambition and personal morality is thrilling to watch today, even if the threatened exposures - one is a serial philanderer in a loveless marriage, the other may have had a 'degenerate' past - feel a little old-fashioned, even quaint. But there's such a spellbinding interplay between Martin Shaw as the reflective Russell and Jeff Fahey as the more bullish Cantwell that it makes for great drama.
Shaw has long been one of our most seriously compelling commercial theatre actors; though he served an early apprenticeship at the Royal Court and in Olivier's National Theatre, he has long headlined in West End plays, most often for producer Bill Kenwright, with whom he is reunited here. He holds the stage so powerfully that it is frankly amazing that the modern National Theatre have not come calling to offer him a role there. He may well be one of our very finest stage actors.
But director Simon Evans guarantees that, though Shaw offers a tour-de-force, there's plenty of impressive support around him to make this a real ensemble show. American actor Jeff Fahey is also queasily enjoyable as his rival, with Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks both superb as their respective wives. There's also a sympathetic performance from veteran NT actor Jack Shepherd as the ailing current President who has not yet determined which candidate to offer his endorsement to and a scene-stealing turn from Maureen Lipman as an instinctively political party grandee.
Since its original Broadway production in 1960 this play has been twice revived there (in 2000 and 2013). Now that it is finally in the West End, it proves its enduring and powerful appeal.
What the popular press said...
"The drama doesn’t shed any startling new light on political machinations, but reveals itself to be a work of gradually mounting heft – as well as a very sharp ending - as it picks its way through a perilous landscape of smear campaigns."
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard (four stars)
"All the performances are first-rate, with nuanced performances from both Shaw and Fahey that keep you guessing until the end. Maureen Lipman is fabulous as Mrs Gamadge who claims to speak for “the women” and does so with impeccable comic timing."
Claire Webb, Radio Times (four stars)