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.

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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



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All in all, the evening is like a group session with no guarantees of being called out or receiving answers. Believers will believe, sceptics won’t. Without going into Michael’s “gift”, the two hours are, unfortunately, rather dull. He jumps straight in between tongue-in-cheek jokes and an entertainer’s spirit. A tense silence falls onto the audience and he starts pacing around, trying to “pick up” some “energy”. He is respectful, and kind, almost apologetic for his intrusions into people’s personal lives as he glances into nothingness, pulling information out of thin air.

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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)



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