THERE has never been a time when the eyes of the world have been so focussed on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so a revival of Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man could not be more relevant.
Bill Kenwright’s new production, starring Martin Shaw as the would-be president of the United States and Jack Shepherd as the predecessor whose support he must gain, is at Bath this week as part of a short UK tour, and a hopeful transfer to the West End.
American elections are as mysterious and arcane to us Brits as the rules of cricket are to those the other side of the Atlantic. It’s a mud-rake-and-sling fest and a circus leading to a logic-defying anti-mathematical conclusion. Sometimes, notably, the best man has won.
Vidal’s play, first seen in 1960, takes the action from the moment two candidates for one party’s nomination move into a Philadelphia hotel for the final days of the convention that moves one forward into the election.
With the press jamming the door-jambs, escape routes through bathrooms of adjoining suites, party workers applying irresistible pressure, would-be first ladies vying for (what was then) newspaper inches and rumour and innuendo flying, this is a time when decency and humanity are tested to the limit.
The world saw what they did to Ted Cruz in the most recent debacle, and that’s not to mention Hillary.
Russell (Shaw) is an honourable, serious, intellectual. His marriage has been a sham for years but his wife has rallied round. His opponent is a bullying Old Southern Boy, playing baby games with his cleverer-than-she-looks wife, and ready to use any of the arms he bears. They are said to have been based on Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon.
The clever final twist shows that the prize is not always what it seems.
In Simon Evans’ slick production, Martin Shaw is the thoughtful and apparently indecisive Russell and Glynis Barber as his decent and long-suffering wife, with American actor Jeff Fahey as his opponent and Honeysuckle Weeks as the ambitious Southern Belle to whom he is married.
Jack Shepherd all but steals the show as about to be former President Hockstader, who describes himself as the last of the hick presidents of the US. It’s a barnstorming performance.
And Gemma Jones is the matriarchal party worker who claims to speak for all the women of America, in a sly and hugely enjoyable depiction.
The star of Judge John Deed has ensured that almost all the tickets are sold for the Bath run, until Saturday. He needs to speak more clearly to be heard, as audiences at other theatres on the tour have also discovered.