Review: The Best Man @ Playhouse Theatre

Gore Vidal’s 1960 play about electoral politics gets a reboot.

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Politics have captured our attention in a big way these days. Whether in the UK or US, the time has never been better to examine what we expect of our leaders.

That’s why The Best Man at the Playhouse Theatre is so compelling. Penned by the late American writer Gore Vidal, it follows two leading party candidates in what quickly becomes an unscrupulous bid for the White House. Although this drama premiered in 1960, its themes of ethics, power and corruption still resonate today.

With several stage and screen stalwarts, The Best Man boasts one of the most notable casts in the West End. Martin Shaw, well known for playing the eponymous detective on TV’s Inspector George Gently, is at the helm. As former Secretary of State William Russell, he deftly embodies an intellectual with a superiority complex and some secrets in his closet.

The Best Man

Jeff Fahey, who appeared as the mentally disabled groundskeeper in the cult sci-fi film The Lawnmower Man, plays Senator Joseph Cantwell, Russell’s opponent for the presidential nomination. With his slicked back hair and glowering presence, Fahey brings a sharp-edged exuberance to the stage. He portrays Cantwell as a rising leader in his party, but also a man with questionable morals who’ll use any bit of dirt to push his own agenda.

The Best Man

In The Best Man, both candidates are aggressively seeking the endorsements of crafty ex-President Arthur Hockstader and Mrs Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a wealthy elder committee spokesperson who controls the women’s vote. Eminent theatre veterans Jack Shepherd and Maureen Lipman play these characters with a candor and shrewdness that often steals the show.

Glynis Barber, known for her work on the TV shows Dempsey and Makepeace and EastEnders, and Foyle’s War star Honeysuckle Weeks appear as the candidates’ wives. The former is steadfast and down-to-earth, while the latter evokes Jackie Kennedy-esque glamour. Although The Best Man is set at a time when women were relegated to back rooms, both characters are complex and serve vital roles in the political process.

The Best Man

Interestingly, the whole play takes place in the candidates’ hotel suites, and it’s fun to see the settings switch. While all the furnishings remain, a framed painting swaps canvases before your eyes as cast members stroll by cheekily flipping over campaign posters – thus slogans like “A Time for Greatness” in Russell’s suite transform to “Go with Joe” in Cantwell’s suite.

Although the ending is sure to surprise you, the greatest thing about The Best Man is the grey areas. No political party is ever mentioned. Amid threats, slurs and dirty tricks, there are unexpected laughs. And ultimately it forces you to consider what kind of person would make for a better future president – which gives everyone some common ground in this highly charged political era.

Running until 12 May 2018, tickets for The Best Man are available now at