Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Review: BEST OF ENEMIES, Noël Coward Theatre

Review: BEST OF ENEMIES, Noël Coward Theatre

Zachary Quinto joins David Harewood in the West End transfer of James Graham's play on the genesis of televised political debates.

Best of EnemiesJames Graham has written himself a career defined by sharp political commentary that's as emotionally rich as the best of romantic dramas. From Thatcherian parliamentary narratives to Rupert Murdoch's rise to power, he has an extraordinary gift for inserting the matters into a socio-political context that makes his audience care.

Best of Enemies first premiered at the Young Vic last year, going on to win the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play and receive two nominations at the Olivier Awards. Graham opens his horizons to American politics this time around, analysing how the US presidential nominating conventions in the late 60s ended up influencing today's role of debate broadcasts and popularity.

It's a fascinating journey into the genesis of the current sensationalisation of the news. On the Right, we have conservative author William F Buckley Jr. On the Left, bisexual writer Gore Vidal. David Harewood and Zachary Quinto engage in a battle of wits and quips in a play charged with oratorical thrills.

By now we live in a world where politics are made through a screen; it's interesting to realise how Buckley and Vidal essentially paved the way for Matt Hancock to come third in I'm a Celebrity a few days ago and for Trump to go from The Apprentice to winning a presidential election.

While Best of Enemies is doubtlessly a big, snazzy West End production that rivals the spectacle of the original debates, the attention to detail is astonishing. Harewood reprises Buckey's ticks and cocky, uptight demeanour while Quinto toys with Vidal double-breasted tidiness and socialite loquaciousness. They share an elegant, sophisticated, deliciously watchable cattiness.

It's a frontal show, geared towards the auditorium, almost to excess. An ambiguous fourth wall, real footage projected onto the set, and many dynamically meta moments muddle fact and fiction under Jeremy Herrin's sleek direction. Buckley and Vidal's war of words plays in the shadow of the protests against the conflict in Vietnam, which becomes ammunition in the arsenal of these "controversialists".

One year after its premiere, it remains a frighteningly topical piece. Police brutality and the unequivocal power of television are used to one's own ends when fame becomes the currency of political advantage. The company deliver a who's who of the late-Sixties. Andy Warhol (Tom Godwin) and Aretha Franklin (Deborah Alli) are introduced in Vidal's circles as is James Baldwin (Syrus Lowe), while the real Paul Newman and Arthur Miller appear at the Democratic National Convention in a black-and-white interview.

Scenes intersect in the furious escalation of the events while the actual debates are only moved by Graham's carefully crafted and frankly arresting dialogue. It gives the material a neck-breaking pace as we witness how the redefinition of entertainment played out "live in colour". If there's a fault to find, it lies in the over-explanation at the end. A media analyst appears, tying a few loose ends and painting a picture of what's coming in their personal trajectories with an eye to what that means for us spectators, perhaps a small betrayal of little faith in the audience.

Bunny Christie builds a set that joins sides, with a figurative bridge with three old-timey-looking screens hiding part of a tv studio. With Max Spielbichler's video-contributions, the space transforms into a multi-media feast. Best of Enemies is an exceptional addition to a Theatreland that's generally lacking in political engagement, especially during the Christmas period. It's intense, brainy, and absolutely delectable. The latest West End must-see.

Best of Enemies runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until 18 February 2023.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Related Stories
Save up to 41% on BEST OF ENEMIES Photo
Get tickets from £18 for James Graham's Best Of Enemies. 1968 – a year of protest that divided America. As two men fight to become the next President, all eyes are on the battle between two others: the cunningly conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and the iconoclastic liberal Gore Vidal.

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of James Grahams BEST OF ENEMIES? Photo
James Graham's Best Of Enemies is now open at the Noel Coward Theatre, having transferred from the Young Vic. The play is set in 1968 and follows the fight for the American Presidency between the cunningly conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and the iconoclastic liberal Gore Vidal, played by David Harewood and Zachary Quinto. The play received rave reviews at The Young Vic, but what did the critics think of the revival?

From This Author - Cindy Marcolina

Italian export. Member of the Critics' Circle (Drama). Also a script reader and huge supporter of new work. Twitter: @Cindy_Marcolina

... (read more about this author)

Review: CONTEMPT, VAULT FestivalReview: CONTEMPT, VAULT Festival
March 19, 2023

While the writing is gripping and Gabrielle Nellis-Pain’s performance is excellent, there’s something missing. Catherine’s colleagues are ancient ghosts through the hallowed corridors as she puts on a sleazy, raspy voice to portray them against her well-spoken main character.

March 19, 2023

You are going to die. It’s a certainty, but it’s also the title of the latest play by This is Not Culturally Significant writer Adam Scott-Rowley. Performed entirely naked, You Are Going To Die is a show about everything and nothing. You can read as much or as little as you wish in it. What does it deal with? We’d love to know - we came out of it with more questions than answers. It feels like a social experiment or an impenetrable piece of performance art. It might just be simply throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks.

Review: FREAK OUT!, VAULT FestivalReview: FREAK OUT!, VAULT Festival
March 19, 2023

Coin Toss Collective are an exceptionally creative young company. Freak Out! highlights a problem that wouldn’t cross the mind of the average British person who lives in the inland. They deliver an amusing, chaotic farewell to East Anglia. Who would’ve thought that a show about coastal erosion would be so cool!

Review: VANILLA, VAULT FestivalReview: VANILLA, VAULT Festival
March 19, 2023

Laura Mead writes with prudish humour while Keith Swainston directs her, Ned Wakeley (Dan), and Scott Henderson in a production that’s almost as uninteresting as Katie and Dan’s sex life. Mead’s script is as traditional as the missionary position, but wishes to be as funny as an inappropriate joke at a funeral. She gives her character a silver tongue and wit for days, and she’s great at delivering too, but the plot is awkwardly stale in its predictability.

Review: BURNOUT, VAULT FestivalReview: BURNOUT, VAULT Festival
March 19, 2023

This approach has the story losing focus and looks like a plain attempt at quirkiness. Ultimately, while they mention how difficult it is to have only one hour, the piece comes off as struggling to fill those 60 minutes. All in all, the spirit of Burnout is strong and the creatives behind it have all the right ideas. Perhaps a stronger grasp on a more developed plot might help this naive call to arms.