Now or Later

Christopher Shinn
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2008)

Christopher Shinn has been promoted to the Royal Court's main stage and repays Dominic Cooke's confidence by delivering a fine political play that might be very funny but has a serious agenda.

He clearly has not only a finger on the pulse of his country but a slice of prescience, guessing that the media and their rivals will try to get at politicians through their children.

Eddie Redmayne gives a finely judged and very sensitive performance as preppy John, the son of the Democrat who has just been elected President of the United States of America.

The action takes place in his bare, unimpressive hotel room on election night as state after state declares support for his father, another (much more grizzled) John, played by Matthew Marsh.

Now or Later is primarily a debate on political and personal ethics with young John a conduit for discussions about homosexuality, Islamic Fundamentalism and more abstruse theories about American attitudes today.

It also cleverly juxtaposes the inalienable right to freedom of expression with that of privacy for those near to or in public office, sensibly making neither the outright winner.

The Ivy League student may be intelligent, liberal and principled but he is also very naive. Whilst being gay and remaining in the closet might be marginally acceptable on the Democratic side at least, a witty protest about intolerance is not, especially when it might be seen to defame the prophet, Mohammed.

For 75 minutes, a stream of political animals tries to persuade him to recant publicly using a variety of subtle means. The appetisers are a policy adviser (Adam James); a true president's wife, the student's seemingly sympathetic but deeply insincere Mom, Jessica (Nancy Crane); and the larger and louder than life African-American wheeler-dealer, Tracy (Pamela Nomvete).

In their different ways, each works on John but to little effect, if anything entrenching a boy who almost killed himself at 16 and is stressed following a break-up with his first boyfriend. His closest ally, Matt (Domhnall Gleeson), who joined him in the prank dressed as Pastor Bob, the worst kind of bigoted evangelist, seems a better bet to sway the boy.

They lead on to the main course, as the President-elect himself moves in like an Exocet, soon shedding his own thin veneer of love and proving that blood is thinner than power in a full-on confrontation.

This all works well as drama and gives Shinn a platform to debate the knotty question of the extent to which Americans should now work with or pander to Islam but also challenges the failure to embrace homosexuality even amongst ostensible liberals.

He is a good writer who knows how to structure an argument on stage, at the same time showing how politics are now dominated by posturing and the use of weasel words.

It remains to be seen whether come January there will be a Democrat in the White House but whichever way the election goes, the next President will soon face some of the ethical dilemmas raised in Christopher Shinn's timely look at his home country at the end of the Bush era.

Playing until 18 October

Philip Fisher