Stephen Bellamy (Max Irons) is a 25-year-old press secretary for a U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential candidate nominee, ‘a player on a meteoric rise to the top’, my programme tells me. For once, that expression which usually induces an anal editorial squeal from me – “Meteors don’t rise, they fall! Eats, shoots and leaves!” – seems thoroughly appropriate. From the beginning of Beau Willimon’s gripping play about political wheeler-dealing, Bellamy is on his way down.
He is ‘the best media mind in the country’ – or so everyone tells us, from his boss Paul Zara (Shaun Williamson), to the 19-year-old intern he is screwing (Aysha Kala), to Zara’s opponent Tom Duffy (Andrew Whipp) when he tries to persuade Bellamy to defect to his campaign. Bellamy himself is an arrogant and spiteful individual, not least when he sneers at the goofy PR intern Ben (Josh O’Connor) and his attempts to impress him. Yet the man who controls the press ends up being controlled. Duffy invites him to join his campaign, then leaks their discussions to the papers. Bellamy is fired and Ben takes his place. In his downfall, Bellamy tries his best to slam his boss and spills all the secrets told to him by ‘that intern’ who was so loyally shagging him.
Bellamy claims ‘I wanted to be something – I wanted to change the world’. But when he seems entirely uninterested in the ‘sob story’ of the ordinary voter – a waiter played by Alain Terzoli, whose endearing and passionate one-scene appearance (he plays this and one other small role) is one of the best performances in the show.
Irons was the perfect candidate looks-wise, being, as he is, an absolute Adonis and the one reason anyone ever tuned into the BBC’s White Queen series (in which he plays Edward IV). He oozed blond, posh-boy arrogance – though I wished he’d stuck with the Sloaney drawl rather than attempting to sound as if he was from Iowa. But he had a dodgy start, characterised by that off-key accent which in any case was barely audible in the back rows of this small theatre. It was hard to believe he was really that great at PR, and Bellamy’s well-crafted character just didn’t develop enough. During a heated row with his young squeeze Molly, when he leapt up onto a bed to display ‘frustration’, you could almost hear the director saying, ‘Look frustrated, Max! Jump up on the bed or something!’
Yet the play was perked up by an otherwise superb cast. Williamson – aka Barry from Eastenders – was full of energy and buzz, entirely believable as a swaggering presidential wannabe. Journalist Ida Horowicz (Rachel Tucker) initially cut a hard-nosed image, but allowed a stroke of vulnerability to come through her character as it became evident that she was a press mouthpiece, lapping up everything the politicians gave her for the sake of a story. Kala, like Irons, started off somewhat wooden, and you often felt she could have sanded down her sharp edge to make Molly appear more than just the ‘slutty intern’. But her final scene with Irons was moving and you felt genuinely sorry for this silly girl and the mess she had got herself into.
And the star of the show – just as in the play itself – was Ben. O’Connor’s quiet, unassuming character (whose range of ‘awkward squawk’ noises was second to none) emerged like some kind of creepy swamp animal. His final moment onstage – where he gave a brief grin at the cameras as he announced to the press that he would be replacing Bellamy in the top PR spot – was genuinely chilling.
The lighting – cold and bare, with some seizure-inducing strobe flashes – was simple and effective, as was the basic set with just one or two props such as a bed and chairs. A nice touch was when the waiter actually brought a plate of buffalo wings onstage while clearing away a restaurant scene – the mention of buffalo wings was a key part of the press leak that led to Bellamy’s downfall.
Two hours fly by in this engaging, action-packed play. One or two of the actors are a tad disappointing, but not disappointing enough to bring down the show – and make you wince with horror at the manipulation that, tragically, is the core of politics, PR and the press.