HANNAH MIRSKY is underwhelmed by political drama that isn’t very dramatic.
ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Tue 5th – Sat 9th November, £8/10
Thank fuck for Robbie Aird. Without his inspired Nixon, gravelly-voiced and awkwardly joking, this production would be little more than alright-for-a-school-play. For a start it doesn’t look good, a rarity in an ADC mainshow. The set, made of wooden boxes to be moved around the stage, is cumbersome, and the costumes are messy: I shouldn’t have spent time in the climactic interview thinking about the fallen-down hem on Aird’s trousers.
But this frayed-around-the-edges feeling isn’t just a design problem. Director Helena Middleton has chosen to make this an ‘ensemble’ production, keeping all her actors onstage as much as possible. Once or twice this is put to good effect, for example when a disenchanted crowd grimaces at Nixon’s anecdotes about Chairman Mao. But for the most part, actors end up hanging around awkwardly at the edge of the stage, or worse still, acting out background scenes using what I think is meant to be a ‘fast-forward’ effect. (This involves a kind of frenzied acting fit, moving through exaggerated poses and expressions as quickly as possible, while somehow trying not to giggle.)
The acting for the most part is solid. I don’t think it’s fair to criticise first-night slips like dodgy accents or forgotten lines, though there were enough of them to be noticeable. Some supporting actors stand out: Sophia Flohr as Jack Brennan makes a surprisingly convincing middle-aged military man, for example. (I applaud Middleton’s decision to cast more women than the script calls for, in what could have been yet another male-dominated ADC play.) But other members of the ensemble fail to shine, with Kay Dent as Jim Reston seeming relentlessly aggressive, and Ben Walsh as John Birt just a touch limp.
Let’s face it though, what the success of this show ultimately rests on is the two lead actors. It can’t be Frost/Nixon without Frost and Nixon, and the audience are coming to these characters with expectations from the film version, and from real life. Aird, as I’ve said, is extraordinary. He rumbles away in a recognisably Nixonian voice, but succeeds in making his performance more than a caricature or an impression. Nixon, here, is a man, and the moment he admits his corruption is at once electrifying and pitiful. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have a Frost to match him.
I am aware that this production has had some difficulties with Frost: James Ellis, who was due to be playing him, dropped out late in the rehearsal process, leaving the current actor, James Evans, little time to learn the part. But when there’s such a credible Nixon on stage, the fact that Evans isn’t remotely recognisable as Frost is, to say the least, disappointing. Instead, he plays a generic ‘showbiz’ type: London accent, slightly camp, lots of gesticulation. He seems so young in comparison to Aird that watching the interview scenes is at times like watching your mate blagging his way through a supervision. It was a surprise to be reminded at the end of the play that Frost was thirty-nine during the interviews.
My advice wouldn’t be to avoid seeing this play: it’s enjoyable enough, and Aird really is astonishing. But if you do choose to spend your money on this well-publicised mainshow, don’t forget to lower your expectations.