Friday, 20 September 2013

Theatre review: Farragut North

There's a bit of a crush to get into Southwark Playhouse's Large space at the moment - "no pushing!" barked a woman at me, as she pushed me up against the door-frame so she could get first dibs on the front row. Maybe this excitement is due to the presence of Max Irons, who's pretty much sexually irresistible (at least that's what his dad thinks.) Or maybe everyone just wanted to get up close to Barry off of Eastenders. Irons plays Steve, a 25-year-old who's already press officer for a US Presidential candidate. Farragut North takes place in the runup to the crucial Iowa primaries and the signs are good that Steve's candidate will win the vote to become the Democrats' candidate. But this confidence is shaken with a few days to go when Steve gets a call from a rival campaign's manager (Andrew Whipp) who suggests the polls might not tell the whole story, and it could be time to jump ship.

Beau Willimon's play (which has been filmed as The Ides of March but is getting its UK stage premiere here) is a tightly wound political thriller whose first act keeps you guessing as to exactly how the various plot threads it stacks up will pull together.

In many ways its story follows a familiar trajectory of a hot-shot behind the political scenes whose apparent invincibility sets him up for a pretty brutal fall, as well as revealing the corrupting effect of politics - the people selling themselves on idealism and trust who end up in pretty dark places for their pursuit of power. What for me is interesting about Farragut North is not only the fact that it doesn't feature a single politician - the people we meet dedicate their lives to getting people into power, moving on to the next election after every win or loss, not staying on to actually see that their promises are kept. But also the way the press (Rachel Tucker plays a journalist who's apparently sympathetic to the campaign) have turned the spin doctors themselves into the story, and the way that itself can be spun: Steve and campaign manager Paul (Barry Shaun Williamson) are now public figures in their own right, and their behaviour can make them assets or liabilities to the unseen Governor's White House ambitions.

Guy Unsworth's production mirrors the grubby seediness of David Woodhead's set with its filthy carpet tiles on the floor and exposed electrics in the ceiling. Irons is backed up by a generally strong supporting cast although Aysha Kala is a standout as Molly, the supremely sexually confident intern who knows as much about getting what she wants as the older men and women around her. And Josh O’Connor is a scene-stealing one to watch as a gawky assistant who's best not underestimated.

As a "next big thing" whose recent large scale TV and film projects have failed to set the world alight as much as expected, Irons has made a canny choice to go the other way with a claustrophobic play in an intimate venue, and proves himself a charismatic lead in a strong, tense and sometimes uncomfortable piece on the machinations behind the race to the White House.

Farragut North by Beau Willimon is booking until the 5th of October at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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