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Best of Enemies

Noel Coward Theatre

85-88 St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4AP 0844 482 5141

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Ends 18th February 2023.

A televised debate between conservative and liberal is nothing new... except that in 1968 it was, as William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal battled it out on American television.

The hit Young Vic production of James Graham's play transfers to the West End for a limited season.

(seen at the afternoon preview performance on 24th November 2022)

A recent newspaper article reminded the monkey that, when it was young, politicians on British TV would discuss a matter - not regurgitate in full the preparation given for that interview by their party media managers.

How did we come to this situation? James Graham turns the spotlight on one contribution, America’s ABC television putting together two highly articulate opposing cultural icons to debate live on television over several days during political rallies to choose the next Presidential candidates. Ratings soared and so political media manipulation in the name of viewing figures was born.

Mixing actual video (Max Speilbichler from Robert Gordon’s original documentary) and having the actors mimic exactly their 50 or more years ago ghosts is inspired. Two actors with reactions from the real thing behind them lends an inimitable credibility.

The play itself is somewhat episodic. Revealing and fascinating are the machinations which bring William F Buckley Jr (David Harewood) and Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto) together. Their pre-preparations and de-briefings with family and hangers-on are as telling as they are amusing and entertaining. The first half flies for the most part, powered by it all.

The second is a little heavier. Long sequences from the broadcasts are used instead perhaps of exploring more the public reaction to them. We see a little of the political response, and hear the ratings, but the crowd scenes are of protests and we wonder at the significance of it all.

The final “debate which never happened” also feels contrived given that we already know the thoughts of the two men, what happened to them afterwards and that Graham could have written the whole thing more interestingly into the preceding scenes without eking out another transmission.

The good news is that Harewood in particular is on the best of his very best form. Punctilious, articulate, vulnerable, every inflection in a sentence is new layer to his character.

Quinto does not quite have the benefit of equally strong scripting, but is allowed a more physical and broader character, his affairs (Sam Otto, one exploited partner, neatly drawn) letting him use more character palette than his opponent.

Behind the man, Clare Foster as wife Patricia Buckley is advocate and moderator, clearly essential to Buckley in ways he never truly appreciates.

In other smaller roles, Kevin McMonagle is an uncanny Walter Cronkite, comparing directly with original footage of the famous broadcaster used in the play. George from Marketing (Syrus Lowe) has a turn also as Martin Luther King Jr, another chance to watch life imitate art to good effect. Deborah Alli as Aretha Franklin likewise has a moment with a beautiful “Star Spangled Banner” at the start of the second act.

As a lesson in fairly recent history, it fills in the gaps pre-Regan, just before one of the toughest periods in US politics which shaped the current era. Ingeniously staged by Jeremy Herrin, if it is perhaps a little long it is seldom dull and always comes with a polished turn of phrase. All drama documentaries should probably be like this.

The monkey advises checking performance times on your tickets and that performances are happening as scheduled, before travelling.

Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm
Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm and 7.30pm

Runs 2 hours 25 minutes approximately.

Theatres use "dynamic pricing." Seat prices change according to demand for a particular performance. Prices below were compiled as booking originally opened. Current prices are advised at time of enquiry.

Noel Coward theatre price seating plan

RUSH TICKETS: App Todaytix are offering £30 "Rush tickets," located at venue discretion, for all performances. Released for the performance on that day, first-come, first-served. Download the App from Todaytix

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