Not to be missed: The Best Man

Not to be missed: The Best Man

The Best Man is a 1960s play for today

Martin Shaw is amazingly good in a deeply convincing play

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If you like your politics raw – fast-talking, hard-hitting political fist fighting, all served up in the glamorous world of the America Democratic Convention's Philadelphia hotel -- then The Best Man, starring the incomparable Martin Shaw, is the play to show what really goes on behind the scenes at the heart of politics.

Last night’s packed audience at the Cambridge Arts Theatre had a ring-side seat on the sensational horse trading that is the meaty business of presidential candidate selection U.S. style.

Yet this fresh feisty drama, written with glorious panache by a man who wanted to be remembered for writing 'the best prose in the world of literature', Gore Vidal, appeared in 1960 – well before the stylish success of JFK, his Camelot court and tragic assassination, the scandals of Richard Nixon’s Watergate, and certainly long before anyone had heard of a character called Donald J. Trump.

Woven into its text however are – uncannily -- glimpses of times and characters to come. How a play nearly 60 years old now, can capture the personalities of people to come is just one of the intriguing conundrums of The Best Man

Is this prescient observation of power at work, part of its enduring fascination? Certainly the audience of this show was rapt, enjoying every well-plotted twist and turn of the fast moving action.

It opens in a luxury hotel suite. Into the wonderful set of 1950s glamour, sweep the august and erudite Secretary of State William Russell (Martin Shaw) and his suave intelligent wife Alice, fabulous in a Jackie O Chanel suite and pillbox hat atop dark glossy flick-up hair. In moments we realize that their marriage is not what it was, but the sensible Bryn Mawr educated Alice has decided to shelve any divorce to gamely join her Harvard-schooled husband on the campaign trail. Without her support, his chances are slim to non-existent. 

Bill Russell immediately gives a Press Conference to a rowdy gang of reporters -- his style is languid and amusing, packed with witty asides and crisp quotations from Bertrand Russell. He fields direct questions – he is an engaging sophisticated man keen to serve as president but unwilling to get down to the populist level.

Then a sudden scene-change switches to the quarters of his opponent Senator Joseph Cantwell -- a larger-than-life looming bruiser from down South and we meet a man with a booming voice, confident masculine swagger and the brooding charismatic presence of a bully. His press address is full of slogans – and snide sneers. Actor Jeff Fahey fills the stage with the hulking handsome hugeness of this commanding figure, with his sights set on the Whitehouse. His dizzy devoted wife, Mabel, played by a saccharine Honeysuckle Weeks, dives in and out of winsome outfits (this play is so entertaining on a fashion level) as she prepares to join her 'Papa Bear’ at the Convention Dinner. 

But first the two men meet. Cantwell reveals he has dirt on his opponent – medical records which are evidence of a nervous breakdown earlier in his life. He ready to smear Bill Russell unless the cool principled opponent moves over to allow him the nomination. 

Just as the Russell camp absorb this threat, and talk it over with the ex-President Hockstader, played with show-stopping brilliance by veteran actor Jack Shepherd, the hick but hugely shrewd predecessor still holding his fire about which candidate he will endorse, a winning card drops into Russell’s lap. Evidence that can be used against his opponent to devastating effect. But will Russell play low and dirty? Is he willing to get down there on a level with Canwell? Or will he be true to his principles?

The second half of the play is truly electrifying. An ex President plated by a brilliant Jack Shepherd (always Mr. President for Americans of course) haunts the play and gives a superb performance as to the real meaning of politics: 'You’ve got to be good at life, no matter how smart your ideas, you’ve got to like people,' he states with devastating simplicity. But does Martin Shaw’s character conform to that definition, and how much will he sacrifice of himself for power? 

Overtones of past presidents haunt this production. Isn’t charming Hockstader just like Bill Clinton? And what about the bombast of the chief opponent Cantwell, haven’t we heard his booming rhetoric before, quite recently in fact? 

All set for a West End triumph, Martin Shaw’s steady quality underscores this deeply convincing play. Watching it is both intriguing and somehow comforting as you realize that there’s nothing new in politics and we have actually seen it all before. Over there and over here. 

The Best Man is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre through Saturday 21 Oct.

Cambridge out in force for Royal Philharmonic

Cambridge out in force for Royal Philharmonic

Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark