Playhouse Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
A good old-fashioned play about good old-fashioned politics. Gore Vidal’s 1960 satire The Best Man is based around the Democratic convention where in reality JFK won his nomination.
Each of Vidal’s contenders – Martin Shaw’s patrician, womanising, slightly boring front-runner versus Jeff Fahey’s overacted angry younger slugger – has a prime piece of dirt to smear on his opponent and it’s a race to the line to see who will or won’t use it.
Although political comedy is sharper since The West Wing and House of Cards, there’s charm in watching The Best Man’s equally vicious plot unfold at a gentler pace, especially with so many them-off-the-telly cameo performances to enjoy.
Jack Shepherd’s doddery but conniving ex-President is a duplicitous gem, as is Maureen Lipman’s sardonic campaign veteran who holds ‘the women’s vote’ in her tightly clasped handbag. Lipman’s characterisation is a period-perfect study reminiscent of Mildred Natwick as Jane Fonda’s mother in Barefoot in the Park and it’s a disappointment she has so few scenes.
As the candidates’ partners, Glynis Barber way outshines Honeysuckle Weeks’ clumsy Texan blonde.
There are some cracking lines about what a President should or shouldn’t be that have an added layer of wry mirth for anyone following the current torrid melodramas in Washington. Lipman’s advice “Don’t be too smart, have an inoffensive wife, and don’t ever get into an argument about your mental health” is the best of the night.