Farragut North – Southwark Playhouse

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“24 hours is a long time in politics.” This biting political drama centres on the lengths to which people will go, just to keep their head above the water in the race to the White House.  This is the UK premiere of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon, who worked on the Primary campaign for Democrat candidate Howard Dean back in 2004.  The play was the basis for the screenplay of The Ides of March which starred George Clooney and Ryan Gosling.

It’s 6 months to the presidential election – all systems are go as each campaign team rallies behind their respective governors, trying to get ahead in the polls, second guess their rivals and work the journalists to write in their favour to win votes in the upcoming Primaries and Caucuses.  In the midst of this is the self-assured and charismatic Stephen Bellamy (Max Irons, recently seen in the BBC adaptation of The White Queen), sweet talking the press and whipping up support – with his team getting a little on the complacent side, he takes a call from the boss of a rival and agrees to meet him, with no consideration for the repercussions.  Irons is a little quiet in the first scene, but as the tension ramps up, so does his volume.

As the situation rapidly spirals out of control, allegiances within their team start to crumble and everyone is fighting to keep their job and their place in the pecking order whilst maintaining the right image for the press and the public.  It’s their neck on the line, or yours.  If you have to drop them in it, do it.  Trust no one.  The play weaves its ways through the minefield of skeletons in cupboards; each action and revelation, which should be enough to annihilate a career, is manipulated to their advantage by a carefully worded phone call to a cleverly chosen person, shifting the balance of power at every turn.

Tom Duffy (Andrew Whipp) teaches Bellamy a hard lesson in playing the political game.  On the surface a politically experienced man, almost father-like, who appears to offer some cold hard truths about Bellamy’s campaign and a lucrative proposition: “We’ve been sending out phony literature to your precinct captains with incorrect polling station addresses.  On voting day we’ll send out vans to create traffic to stop your voters getting there.  You’ve already lost.  Come and work for me.”.  But in the penultimate scene you realise how smoothly he has laid a trap and invited Bellamy to walk into it; he gives the illusion of being warm and honest, but is unashamedly ruthless.

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But this is a game of strategy and everyone has their gains to make: Ida Horowicz (Rachel Tucker, recently Elphaba in Wicked) is to all intents the beguiling journalist who can make a man feel safe about spilling the beans (and doesn’t she know it), but would step over her own grandmother to get a juicy scoop that could make or break a campaign.  Paul Zara (Shaun Williamson, best known as Barry in Eastendersis the man leading the charge for his governor, planning deals, endorsements, what to drip feed to the press and when; a likeable man when things are going his way, and piously passive-aggressive when someone breaks his trust.

Ben Fowles (Josh O’Connor) is the plucky young junior just starting to cut his teeth on the campaign trail – he is endearing and naive, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  His suggestion of a fresh approach for a speech in Iowa is mercilessly shouted down by Bellamy, but just when you think he has scuttled off with his tail between his legs, the power shifts and he’s able to stroll into the limelight at just the opportune moment.  Molly Pearson (Aysha Kala) is the sultry young intern who has no qualms with sleeping her way to the top.  Confident, sexy and enigmatic, she eventually finds herself out of her depth as the machinations of politics manoeuvre around her.

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This is a play by an American playwright about the American political process.  Unless you are VERY up to speed on your American politics, I strongly recommend getting there early in order to buy a programme for £2.50 and reading it thoroughly from cover to cover in order to understand what’s going on.  There are a lot of names of unseen characters which are thrown about with wild abandon and as these are all fictional people, it requires a lot of listening to catch who’s who in which campaign.  This is a fascinating if slightly terrifying peep into the world behind the glistening smiles and the soaring speeches that punctuate the long road to the White House.  Just think, it all begins again for real in January 2016…

Farragut North is on until 5th October 2013 at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD.  Tickets from http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk  Contains frequent use of strong language.

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