THEATRE REVIEW: The Best Man @Theatre Royal

After making its UK premier at Theatre Royal Windsor earlier this month, Gore Vidal’s 1960 political satire, The Best Man, has landed at Brighton’s Theatre Royal on the second leg of its UK tour.

The plot revolves around the characters and ambitions of two very different fictional politicians vying for the Democrat nomination at the Presidential primaries in Philadelphia in 1960.

Martin Shaw plays ethical, educated William Russell. A one-time Secretary of State, he’s a polymath with a sharp sense of humour and a liberal approach to politics as well as to life. Above all he professes to be true to himself and to his values.

Russell goes head-to-head against the unscrupulous and highly opportunist Senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey) a popularist whose focus on public opinion and the use of modern public relations techniques has helped him gain ground on his opponent though probably not enough ground to win the nomination.

Both candidates are out to secure the personal and public endorsement of Democrat Ex-President Hockstader (Jack Shepherd) at the convention.

But when Cantwell decides to introduce a devastating and underhand last-minute smear campaign against his rival, will Russell follow his own campaign manager’s advice and stoop to Cantwell’s level in order to achieve his own ends?

This is a beautifully written play. It’s psychologically thrilling yet playful, and stays dramatically compelling right to the very end. And it’s also very funny.

For me there’s more than a hint of Oscar Wilde in some of the play’s slick and witty dialogue, and at times it has the feel of one of Wilde’s congenial comedies of society as much as political satire. The set itself reminded me of a Victorian sitting room.

There’s also a Wildean vanity about some of the writing. It’s a showcase for the playwright’s cleverness and wit, and it’s not hard to see Vidal seeing himself in his portrayal of Russell as a self-assured, quick-witted, silver-tongued Renaissance man. Still it’s all highly enjoyable.

But beyond the cleverness and joviality this is a powerful, taut play which astutely deals with political machinations and more personal moral questions, all of which are as relevant today as they were when the play was written – perhaps even more so.

In this play Vidal’s characters are truly believable and in some cases perhaps recognisable, and Shaw, Fahey and Shepherd provide an outstanding trio of lead performances that convincingly bring the drama to life.

They are wonderfully supported by Honeysuckle Weeks as the ambitious, vain and comically shallow wife of Cantwell, and by Glynis Barber who, playing Russell’s long suffering, stoic but cuttingly sarcastic wife, gets some of the best one-liners in the play.

Dick Jenson and Don Blades are also excellent as the scheming campaign managers in opposing corners.

This play is a real gem – a stylish political thriller that’s engrossing and entertaining in equal measure and which remains as relevant today as it was when written over half a century ago.

Theatre Royal Brighton till 30 September.

For tickets and further tour dates click here:

 

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