The Best Man review: Martin Shaw is superb in a sharp political comedy ★★★★

House of Cards and West Wing fans will enjoy the long-overdue UK debut of Gore Vidal's play about two presidential candidates

Martin Shaw (William Russell) and Jeff Fahey (Joseph Cantwell) in The Best Man at The Playhouse

The Best Man debuted on Broadway almost 60 years ago, but never made it to London because American politics were thought to be of little interest to Brits. How times have changed.

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For the West End premiere of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play, Martin Shaw of Judge John Deed and George Gently fame plays William Russell, a patrician Secretary of State battling it out to be the Democratic candidate at the presidential primaries. Russell is erudite, principled and disdainful of populism. He’s also a philanderer with a sham marriage.

His chief rival is Southern senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey), an unscrupulous populist with slicked back hair and an adoring wife. Both candidates are vying for the endorsement of the ailing Ex-President Hockstader (an impish Jack Shepherd, who’s clearly having a ball).

Honeysuckle Weeks as Mabel Cantwell and Jeff Fahey as Joseph Cantwell (photos: Pamela Raith)
Honeysuckle Weeks as Mabel Cantwell and Jeff Fahey as Joseph Cantwell (photos: Pamela Raith)

All the action takes place in their slogan-bedecked hotel rooms at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, where the winner is to be decided by the vote of the delegates. Cantwell decides to play dirty, threatening to paint his opponent as mentally unstable if he doesn’t withdraw; Russell must decide whether to stoop to his level or take the moral high ground.

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Vidal wrote The Best Man shortly before the 1960 Democratic Convention, which was won by John F Kennedy – and there’s more than a passing resemblance in Cantwell. Nor do you have to look hard to find parallels with the 2016 convention when Hilary Clinton was up against Bernie Sanders; or the rise of Trump and populism in modern politics. The issues have changed – nowadays the threat is North Korea not “Red China”– but the game hasn’t.

It would be easy to turn Cantwell into Trump, but (florid face aside) director Simon Evans wisely refrains from playing up the similarities and turning it into a farce. The Best Man gleefully exposes the double-dealing and grubby mechanics of a supposedly democratic process, but also poses a bigger question: who is the best man for the job? Should Russell compromise? 

All the performances are first-rate, with nuanced performances from both Shaw and Fahey that keep you guessing until the end. Maureen Lipman is fabulous as Mrs Gamadge who claims to speak for “the women” and does so with impeccable comic timing. The snappy script crackles along in a slick, engrossing production.

Vidal’s play is as relevant as ever – and delicious light relief.

The Best Man is at London’s Playhouse Theatre until 26 May 2018

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