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The Best Man

Gore Vidal
Bill Kenwright
Richmond Theatre

Martin Shaw (William Russell) and Jeff Fahey (Joseph Cantwell) Credit: Geraint Lewis
Jack Shepherd Credit: Geraint Lewis
The Best Man Credit: Geraint Lewis

Imagine an impulsive bully who appears to have little concern for the truth attempting to become a political party’s presidential nominee.

You might think that describes Trump, but it is Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey) competing for an unnamed party’s nomination at a 1960 Philadelphia Convention.

Gore Vidal’s fictional play of that year created Cantwell from the self-serving characteristics he saw in Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and the Kennedys.

Not surprisingly given the source material, Cantwell has a restless populist energy that is both repulsive and attention-grabbing.

The play pitches him against the more liberal, urbane William Russell (Martin Shaw) who seems left over from a more patrician age.

Speaking to the press, Russell quotes Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell. Naïvely, he also tells them “life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.”

When Cantwell describes himself as a self-made man, Russell comments, “self-made men sometimes make themselves out of pieces of their victims.”

The show is set in the hotel rooms of these two politicians as they manoeuvre behind the public gaze to grab the nomination.

Among those that meet up with the candidates is Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Gemma Jones) who Russell describes as “the national committeewoman, the only known link between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan” .

Although Russell looks the favourite and has a strong moral code laced with humour, he never seems suited to the hard slog of leadership.

It is something that frustrates former President Hockstandera, played with a lively folksy charm by Jack Shepherd. Hockstandera may regard Russell as a good man but initially prefers to throw his weight behind the dynamic populism of Cantwell.

It is a confident, well performed play with smart dialogue that gently explores the moral temptations facing those competing for office.

The drama is a private one driven by Cantwell’s ruthless pursuit of power. The world and its conflicts never intrude.

The play’s greatest pleasure is the continuous stream of witty observations about politicians and the political process.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna