Playhouse Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
Politics has always been a controversial business and US politics has attracted worldwide interest for decades. So, with Mr Trump trying – and failing miserably – to win friends and influence people, it seems the ideal time to put Gore Vidal’s The Best Man on the West End stage.
In the play, Martin Shaw and Jeff Fahey slug it out for their party’s ticket to stand for president. But what should be a riveting story about the race to The White House turns out to be rather turgid and bloated. One could almost say dull. It certainly lacks the excitement, and cut and thrust, of This House, the British political thriller from James Graham.
Alas, The Best Man features a lacklustre and lethargic turn from its headline name and overacting by the support. Some fault must lie with the source material. On paper, Vidal’s book is a real page-turner, but it doesn’t translate well to the stage.
It’s very wordy – obviously – and it lacks a dynamic central character with which to entice audiences, in contrast, to say, television’s The West Wing or House of Cards. Further, it’s all played out in a bland, nondescript, hotel room with the cast standing around, hands stuffed in their pockets, or necking Scotch like it was going out of fashion.
There’s almost no animation – unless you’re Jack Shepherd or Honeysuckle Weeks. Then you’ve been given carte blanche by director Simon Evans to go completely over-the-top.
We see Martin Shaw stand stage left then right. Occasionally he goes to a door. Mostly he is planted centre stage, hands stuffed in his pockets, watching everyone else work around him. It’s almost directing by numbers from Evans. Shaw plays the upright, and rather priggish, William Russell who is oft to be heard quoting Shakespeare, Bertrand Russell or Oliver Cromwell.
He’s a gentleman politician and we’re supposed to believe that he is rather promiscuous, leaving his lovely wife, Alice, alone at night for a harem of other women.
Really? Shaw’s Russell doesn’t appear to have the strength or charisma to pull a cracker much less a one-night floozy.
He’s Gordon Brown (sorry, Gordon) or John Major (and you, John). A man in a grey suit who hasn’t the dynamism to lead a conga, much less a major political party into power.
Opposing him is Jeff Fahey as the ambitious Senator Joseph Cantwell who, as dubious as behaves, at least has a bit more fire in his belly.
Cantwell, and his equally determined wife, Mabel, are a pair of rednecks who will stop at nothing to secure the ticket, even if it means dirty tricks and dodgy deals.
Sadly the women are peripheral to the main event, which is a pity because Glynis Barber is sensational as the icy but loyal Alice, who is prepared to stand dutifully by her husband even though they are on different continents when it comes to co-habiting.
As hard as Gore Vidal, or Simon Evans, tries to marginalise the women in this less than glossy political saga, they are far more interesting than the men.
Maureen Lipman has a small, but key, role as party whirlwind, meddler and voice of the women’s vote, Mrs Gamadge.
She holds court a couple of times to guide a disinterested Russell in etiquette for winning the female vote and is then cast aside.
Alice, beautifully kitted out to give Jackie Kennedy a run for her money, is a picture of sangfroid. A seasoned politician’s wife who knows how to play the game to get ahead. She’s cool, elegant, a perfect potential First Lady.
Honeysuckle Weeks’ Mabel, meanwhile, is kittenish, frequently gushing and with a fondness for martinis.
She’s banking on a knockout green cocktail dress to dazzle the delegates and mask her clear lack of understanding or sophistication.
Holding both Russell and Cantwell to ransom is ex-president Hockstader (Shepherd) whose endorsement they each need to secure enough votes to win the primaries. But who will he back?
Evans is clever in utilising the one hotel room for both sets of warring guests and the frequent changeovers are subtly done.
But, by necessity, this is a play with no physical action – other than the lifting of a glass of alcohol – and no amount of levity from Maureen Lipman is going to lighten the dialogue-intense production.
The English contingent of the cast struggle with their American accents particularly when they raise their voices in anger or frustration.
Gore Vidal’s novel is fascinating and compelling but its power is diminished on stage.