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A CurtainUp London Review
The Best Man
Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, was a strong and witty writer with personal experience of the pitfalls of the political machinery. His central character, the eponymous "best man" is a decent man who may be a tad intellectual in his thinking to appeal to the populist vote but we, the audience, appreciate his light touch. Looking at this play set in the 1960s, very little has changed and there are many resonances with the positions taken by today's presidential candidates and winners.
In the First World War, in Britain, John Bull magazine published a facsimile of the later Prime Minister and Labour politician Ramsay Macdonald's birth certificate revealing that he was the illegitimate son of a Scottish serving girl. Macdonald was opposing the war and John Bull did this to discredit him to promote their pro-war political views, but ostensibly to show his birth name was different to the one he had entered parliament under. Even Ramsay Macdonald's opponents were shocked at the dirty tricks employed although he had brought it on himself by describing the Bull's contributor Harold Bottomley as "of questionable parentage". One supporter of the war wrote to Ramsay Macdonald saying, "the assault he made on you last week was the meanest, rottenest lowdown dog's dirty action that ever disgraced journalism".
Gore Vidal's play is about whether you should decide to resort to using every bit of ammunition on order to win an election. In The Best Man two candidates are vying to be the presidential candidate. The party isn't named but it is hard to see how one of the candidates could be anything except a Republican. They are Senator Joe Cantwell (Jeff Fahey), a working class Southerner who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made his name on a committee which claims to have rooted out Mafia corruption and Secretary William Russell (Martin Shaw) born with a silver spoon in his mouth, expensively educated, a liberal thinker with a womanizing past. Their choice of wives reflects their circumstances. Alice Russell (Glynis Barber) will keep up appearances by appearing at her husband's side although they have been estranged for some time because of his infidelity. Mabel Cantwell (Honeysuckle Weeks) is a pretty, fashion plate Barbie of a wife, fiercely loyal to her husband and fiercely competitive.
Both campaigns have a young fixer manager, Dick Jensen (Philip Cumbus) for Russell and Don Blades (Jim Creighton) for Cantwell, who will orchestrate the details. Jack Shepherd is ex-president Hockstader whom both sides will court to get his endorsement. Maureen Lipman is Mrs Sue Ellen Gamadge, a rich widow and party activist there to advise on and bring in the women's vote.
The Cantwell team have got some dubiously obtained medical records about Bill Russell's mental health which they are intending to use on the eve of the final vote at the Party Convention. The candidates' teams have both gathered at a hotel in Philadelphia.
The set changes with background posters promoting either Russell or Cantwell. Russell's team have some information about Cantwell from an army colleague of his, Sheldon Marcus (David Tarkenter) but will Russell resort to tactics which would help him win?
Michael Taylor's designs are lovely. The clothes, hats, hairstyles and spectacles look straight out of Mad Men and the hotel suite has draped curtains and reproduction French Roccoco furniture, white with gold flourishes. Hanging from the top of the proscenium arch are facsimiles of American newspapers with their political headlines about this contest.
Jack Shepherd as Ex-President Hockstader almost steals the show in his discussions with both sides. His point of view will illustrate the importance of the chosen candidate being a decisive leader and not just who has the greater moral compass. The play will culminate in a debate between Russell and Cantwell but I'm not going to let on who will win. The acting performances are tip top, the American accents sound to my ear. Martin Shaw as Bill Russell was my favourite with his intellectual approach.
For the English audience The Best Man is a throroughly satisfying play, with superlative English actors and an American Jeff Fahey. It is well constructed and with a debate relevant to today and I have pleasure in recommending it.
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The Best Man
Written by Gore Vidal
Directed by Simon Evans
Starring: Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey, Glynis Barber, Honeysuckle Weeks, Maureen Lipman, Jack Shepherd
With: Philip Cumbus, Jim Creighton, David Tarkenter, Emma Campbell-Jones, Lynden Edwards, Craig Pinder, Peter Prentice, Oliver Kaderbhai, Georgia Clarke-Day
Design: Michael Taylor
Composer and Sound Design: Ed Lewis
Lighting Design: Chris Dave
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7615
Booking to 29th May 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 6th March 2018 performance at the Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5DE (Rail/Tube: Embankment, Charing Cross)
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