Review: The Best Man, Playhouse

Martin Shaw returns to the West End in US political thriller The Best Man, its relevance to today’s White House painfully clear

“The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion”

With American politics being the shitshow that it currently is, the temptation to lampoon Trump at every and any opportunity is one that many theatre directors have been unable to resist. A wilier creative mind might regard this as too on the nose (and already overdone) and find an alternative way to critique our transatlantic cousins, at least an avalanche of Brexit plays puts the boot on the other foot.

And that is what Simon Evans’ revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man has done. After touring the UK last year, it arrives at the Playhouse Theatre with a slight sense of stateliness about it but also alive to how just how much of what was written nearly 60 years ago has to say about today’s political establishment. With a cast that includes Martin Sheen and Maureen Lipman, plus a cracking performance from Philip Cumbus, there’s something interesting here that rises above some slightly dated writing and aspects of a political system long left behind.

The play circles around a battle to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination. On the one hand there’s a party loyalist complete with government experience and on the other, there’s an up-and-coming senator riding a wave of populist support. And in a Philadelphia hotel ahead of a key convention, they each fight to gain the upper hand and the approval of former President Hockstader (a lively turn from Jack Shepherd) who has positioned himself as kingmaker.

Shaw is his customary smooth self as William Russell, an intellectual with a past and Jeff Fahey is lots of fun as his rival Joseph Cantwell, a hothead who also (possibly) has a past. And it is interesting to note the common threads about how to spin a ‘good’ politician – regular Joe-ness over cleverness, wives pretty enough to take a good picture but who will never steal focus, pressing the flesh with exactly the right kind of pressure groups (thankfully there’s no NRA here…).

In the elegant surroundings of designer Michael Taylor’s hotel suite, the gamesmanship we get to witness proves engaging, especially as we edge closer to dirty tricks and straight-up corruption. Maureen Lipman’s elder stateswoman is a dry delight as she dictates what she – and by extension the women of the USA – will accept. Phil Cumbus’ gives good Dick as wheeler-dealing campaign manager Dick Jensen.

And Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks (a vision in lime green) find intriguing depths to the wives they play, exploring the notion that relationships in politics require some kind of fundamentally deeper partnership in order to succeed. The secrets they hide pave the way for the terrible lengths some will go to in order to achieve their highest ambitions. The Best Man says nothing directly about today’s White House or the most recent struggle to occupy it – obliquely though, there’s insight aplenty.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
The Best Man is booking at the Playhouse Theatre until 26th May

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