reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 16 October
Politics are seldom a clean business wherever they are. Gore Vidal’s 1960 behind-the-scenes drama about an US Democratic Party convention to nominate a presidential candidate rings almost as many bells for a British audience in 2017 as it did for the American one when first staged.
Basically it’s a duel between the two main candidates, each with seconds as in the personal combat tradition. Both have display wives and devious behind-the-scenes manoeuvering campaign manager. There are also Party heavyweights, one a former President and the other a matriarch with her own power base, who are needed to endorse the front-runner – whichever he turns out to be.
Squeaky clean is the image to present to those all-important voters. Needless to say, a vast amount of energy is expended in digging up as much dirt to sling at the opposition and making it stick. Is Secretary of State William Russell subject to severe nervous breakdowns? How secure is his marriage? Does Senator Joseph Cantwell’s military past hold a story which would not merely damage but criminalise him?
Martin Shaw’s urbane Russell and his coolly elegant wife Alice (Glynis Barber) are the first couple we meet in their Philadelphia hotel suite (a design by Michael Taylor whose semi-transparent panels suggest that nothing a public figure says or does is ever completely private. His hit-man is Dick Jensen (Anthony Howell), a typical Washington (or Whitehall) apparatchik.
In contrast, Jeff Fahey’s Cantwell (a name which Sheridan would have relished) is a ramrod who still can relax in private with his blonde photo opportunity-seizing wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks). the wives’ meet-the-Press scene shows Barber and Weeks as polar opposites and is very funny, particularly as is mediated by Gemma Jones’ grande dame Mrs Gamage.
Walking away with the acting prize is Jack Shepherd’s ex-President Hockstader, a man hiding a terminal disease who cannot be bamboozled into throwing his weight behind either candidate without good cause – and he has his own methods of ferreting out not just the truth but all its surroundings, past and present.
Evidence of a sort which might be Cantwell’s undoing is provided by David Tarkenter as Sheldon Marcus, a former Army officer now adrift in civilian life but determined to reveal what may – or may not – have happened in 1943. Jim Creighton’s Don Blades has to act quickly either to disprove the story or to suppress it.
Simon Evans’ direction keeps the action taut and also allows space for the characters to flourish as three-dimensional people through their speeches and other exchanges. We may be in the 1960s onstage, but the rumbles of that time are still around in our decade. And beyond it, almost certainly. Power is indeed a weapon.
Four and a half-star rating.
The Best Man continues at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.