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A review round-up for The Best Man starring Martin Shaw and Maureen Lipman

Gore Vidal’s 1960 penned US political drama has finally received its West End premiere.

A comic drama that explores the vexed relationship between politics and populism, The Best Man follows two opposing presidential candidates fighting neck and neck in an unscrupulous battle for the nomination.

The cast is lead by Martin Shaw (Judge John Deed, Inspector George Gently) as the liberal, atheist & cerebral candidate opposite Jeff Fahey’s (The Lawnmower Man, Lost) populist win-at-all-cost man.

Both flawed in their own way, and with enough dirt to sink a ship, the play looks at where does compromise end and corruption begin? and how far are they willing to go.

The supporting cast includeswonderful performances from Maureen Lipman delivering some of the best lines in her dry wit, Jack Shepherd as the ex-president disguising his shrewdness under the guise of a hick from the sticks and Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks as the two wives.

Does it hold up to tv series House of Cards and The West Wing or James Graham’s This House? If it’s fast paced drama you’re after probably not. But, as a well structured period play that has relevance in todays political climate it definitely worth a look.

Read our round-up of reviews below.

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The Best Man runs until 12 May 2018 at the Playhouse Theatre, London


STAR RATING The Guardian

nostalgic and topical

It takes one back to the age of the well-tailored play and a time when political conventions were contests, rather than coronations. Yet, with its reminder that “to want power is corruption already”, it chimes with present-day cynicism about the political process.

Vidal’s sympathies are too palpably with Russell, who is presented as a man of flawed integrity. While acknowledging the importance of potential first ladies, the play also never fully explores the characters of the candidates’ wives: you wonder how much Cantwell’s wife knows about her husband’s ambivalent sexual past.

In a play generous in supporting roles, Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the ex-president who shrouds his native shrewdness under the guise of a hick from the sticks.

And Maureen Lipman gives a hilarious display of frosty elegance as a vote-swaying committee chair who wields power like a female Richelieu.

Michael Billington, The Guardian

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STAR RATING Financial Times

Though often waspishly funny and shrewdly observant, dramatically the play is pretty stiff.

There’s a degree of predictability about the plotting and the sympathy clearly lies with Russell. Shaw, however, poignantly mines the complexities of his decent, troubled character. Fahey, as his opponent, has the crackling energy and glossy appeal of a man who knows his own mind — although if he were more likeable, the dilemma might be subtler.

There’s lovely work from the supporting cast, particularly from Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks as the two wives.

Maureen Lipman offers a perfectly honed comic turn as a formidable party elder who speaks for “the women” and whose complete absence of self-doubt and instinct for image management would surely find her a place in today’s toxic political scene.

Financial Times

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STAR RATING The Daily Telegraph

Gore Vidal’s political interrogation can still induce a shudder

Although this premiere arrives at an odd (mid-term) time in the US cycle, the surprise is just how much pertains to America today – and, indirectly, ourselves: just what does it take to get in the running for the top job?

Those hoping for the adrenalin rush of The West Wing, say, or House of Cards be warned: it’s a sedentary, talky evening and “Get them to gabble less, talk louder” would be the one note I’d shove under the door of the director Simon Evans. As the patrician Russell, Martin Shaw has the requisite self-possession but needs more evident zeal and loin-girded vitality (he’s too easily out-vimmed by Jeff Fahey’s puffed-up Cantwell).

The women, subordinated, make their mark, though: Maureen Lipman as the slyly manipulative Mrs Gamadge – power-broker for the female delegates; Glynis Barber as Russell’s betrayed, estranged but tactically loyal spouse (did someone say Hillary?); and Honeysuckle Weeks as Cantwell’s consciously alluring other half (don’t mention Melania).

though you can see the cobwebs, the chilly draught of age-old real-politik is bracing enough to induce a useful shudder.

Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph

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Martin Shaw strikes an appropriate balance of gravity and levity as William, managing to pull off moral righteousness without appearing too pompous. He finds a worthwhile opponent in Jeff Fahey as Joe Cantwell, all puffed chest and slicked hair, confidence shading into brashness.

The script features bursts of smart-talking, snappy dialogue, but there are also quite long stretches of dry political chat. Taking place statically in a cream and gold hotel room, ‘The Best Man’ is theatrically pretty inert; I could imagine it working better on screen. It’s timely, yes, and a solid production, but never feels that urgent.

Holly Williams, TimeOut

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STAR RATING The Independent

Vidal’s play centres on the real power struggles: the backroom deals, smear threats, and outright blackmail.

As exciting as all the premise sounds, ​The Best Man​ falls slightly flat. Taking some time to warm up, the action is confined to conversation that should crackle with the electricity of ideas bouncing off one another, but at times feels like a seminar.

Moreover, the shocking cynicism of the 1960s feels rather tame now. The idea that candidates do dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms fails to shock in 2018.

Jeff Fahey as Cantwell is vibrant as the morally lax populist.  Fahey exudes the ambition and dogged obsession of the demagogue politician

Maureen Lipman as the representative of women in the party has some of the best lines, and her appearances are to be savoured in what can at times be dry exchanges.

Although lauded for its relevance, it pales in comparison to current White House melodramas, being too tame to entertain fully.

Joe Vesey-Byrne, The Independent

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STAR RATING Evening Standard

If not quite ‘best’, this is definitely pretty good.

The drama doesn’t shed any startling new light on political machinations, but reveals itself to be a work of gradually mounting heft – as well as a very sharp ending – as it picks its way through a perilous landscape of smear campaigns.

Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard

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