The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s 1960 play about two men at a Philadelphia Democrat convention competing to be nominated by their party as potential presidents, has never been seen in the West End until now. This production, which arrives from a UK tour, is directed by Simon Evans. Despite its age, it’s not hard to see why the play has been revived now: the themes of political truth, populism and ethics can be applied easily to today’s world.
Vidal’s protagonist William Russell is an intellectual, a thoughtful, intelligent man who quotes Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell and takes the time to think about any situation. His rival, Joe Cantwell, is a Southerner who prides himself on being a self-made man and claims to be able to relate to the average American voter. Russell is far from perfect: his philandering is famous and his relationship with his wife is cordial but distant. Cantwell appears to have no vices: he doesn’t even drink or smoke, and he is completely faithful to his wife. Yet he is the one who digs up a medical report on Russell relating to the latter’s breakdown several years ago, claiming that the man is mentally unfit to lead the nation. Russell is subsequently handed some damning information on Cantwell, and while he is reluctant to use it, knows that it might be his only chance to win.
Gore Vidal is best known as a novelist, and watching this play it’s easy to tell: I got the impression the story would have worked just as well as a novel. This is not to denigrate the play, however: Vidal knows how to ramp up the tension as we wonder what decision Russell will make. The language of the play is rich too, witty, incisive and with plenty of food for thought.
Martin Shaw is superb as Russell, with Glynis Barber also excellent as his warm, dignified wife Alice. Jeff Fahey proves a worthy opponent as Cantwell, with Honeysuckle Weeks charming as his Southern-belle wife. Among the supporting cast, Maureen Lipman steals every scene she’s in as committee chair Sue-Ellen Gamadge and Jack Shepherd is memorable as an ageing ex-President. Michael Taylor’s opulent hotel room design serves as the suite for both presidential candidates (with just a change of placards to indicate the switch).
Before going in I feared that I was in for a dull, dry evening at the theatre, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. This production has no bells and whistles, but it’s intelligent and compelling nevertheless.