Jackie Chappell reviews The Best Man, starring Martin Shaw and Gemma Jones, at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 14 October

Such dark and dirty politics in the run-up to an election. We could be watching the showdown between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic national convention, or the politics of Clinton vs Trump in the presidential, or even May vs Corbyn in our own general election.

Instead we are watching a new production of The Best Man, originally premiered in 1960. Gore Vidal’s award-winning drama satirised the race to become presidential candidate that was then won by John F Kennedy.

Some things just don’t change – when the going gets tough, the tough get personal. But this is no dry political battle. It’s witty, pertinent today, and enlivened by a stellar cast led by Martin Shaw (Judge John Deed, The Professionals).

Shaw plays the esteemed former Secretary of State William Russell who is up against opposing populist candidate Senator Joseph Cantwell (Jeff Fahey) for the presidential nomination.

Tweets hadn’t been invented in 1960 but you know that Cantwell – just like someone currently big in American politics – would be tweeting soundbites had they been.

The only thing that separates the two candidates are endorsements from respected former president Hockstader (Jack Shepherd) and influential party bigwig Mrs Gamadge (Gemma Jones).

As the campaigns get personal so too the wives become involved, engaging in some acidly barbed repartee about looks and religious sensibilities (abortion rights were as big an issue then as now).

Gemma Jones as Mrs. Gamadge, Honeysuckle Weeks as Mabel Cantwell, Jim Creighton as Don Blades and Glynis Barber (Alice Russell) in The Best Man

Cantwell begins a smear campaign against his rival who initially refuses to retaliate in kind – but is this strength or weakness? And where does compromise stray into corruption? Who will ultimately prove to be the best man for the task? We are kept edge-of-seat guessing until the end.

Performances throughout are terrific with Shaw’s thoughtfully intellectual Russell contrasted by Fahey’s punchy no-holds-barred Cantwell (said to be based in part on Richard Nixon).

The two sides are held neatly in balance by Shepherd’s energetic portrayal of ex-president Hockstader. The arbiter of power, he says of Cantwell that he will do anything to get elected, whereas Russell has too fine a mind to get things done.

Gemma Jones plays the opinionated Mrs Gamadge with some style (a bit like governor Peter’s mother Jackie in The Good Wife).

Glynis Barber, channelling a Jackie Kennedy look as Alice Russell, icily disapproves of her husband’s philandering (insert several politicians’ wives, past and present, here) while standing by her man. Honeysuckle Weeks plays a fabulous, pouting, mouthy blonde posing for the photographers. They look as though they enjoy their roles as much as we do.

The production, directed by Simon Evans, starts off slowly but builds to an intensity that entertains as much as it poses serious questions about the nature of power that are as relevant today as they were almost 60 years ago.

And, of course, Martin Shaw is the best man of all, practically a national treasure, so you can’t fail to enjoy this very fine production. Go and see it – you won’t be disappointed.

The Best Man is showing at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 14 October. Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk or call the box office: 01225 448844 for tickets.

Main image: Martin Shaw as William Russell with the cast of The Best Man. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis