Frost/Nixon

October 13, 2016 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆    Intelligent

Bedlam Theatre: Wed 12 – Sat 16 October 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Clever and ambitious, EUTC’s Frost/Nixon at the Bedlam is uneven in execution.

Peter Morgan’s play – later a successful film – features a series of celebrated TV interviews between David Frost and disgraced US president Richard Nixon, when Tricky Dicky famously seemed to admit to covering up illegal activity in the aftermath of Watergate. The play is a combination of political thriller and comedy that is difficult to pull off, and does not always succeed.

Callum Pope and Paddy Echlin. Photo: Patrick Beddow

Callum Pope and Paddy Echlin. Photo: Patrick Beddow

Famously, the stage and screen versions originally featured performances that were almost impersonations – notably the portrayal of Frost by the chameleon that is Michael Sheen. Here, Paddy Echlin’s Nixon is a believable portrayal – he is often too cuddly, and the voice slides alarmingly close to Churchill on occasion, but this is an impressively rounded character.

If nothing else, it is good to be reminded that self-serving, mendacious, repulsive blowhards are not a new phenomenon in US politics.

Callum Pope’s Frost is less convincing. It is stressed in the play that Frost was far from posh, and was the object of snobbery at Cambridge – supposedly it was imagined that his ‘silly voice’ was put on for effect. Yet that famous, almost strangulated way of speaking was distinctly classless for the time, which ended up helping his career in the more egalitarian 60s. It is difficult, after all, to imagine That Was The Week That Was fronted by someone who sounded like Harold Macmillan. His charm was of an unctuous, apparently insecure kind, which contributed to his being underestimated by Nixon and others.

well-judged

Pope, however, plays him as a thoroughly cut-glass smoothie; when he chats up the socialite Caroline Cushing (Bella Rogers, in a well-judged performance), Frost sounds posher than she does. At time his voice and mannerisms evoke Prince Charles, which is surely not the intended effect.

Callum Pope and Bella Rogers Photo Patrick Beddow

Callum Pope and Bella Rogers. Photo: Patrick Beddow

There is also a lack of tension in the depiction of the interviews. Morgan took liberties with the story in order to create an artificial sense of conflict and jeopardy, which is largely absent here. When the end result is so well known, it takes a huge effort to make the audience feel it is anything other than a foregone conclusion.

The supporting performances range from the solid to the thoroughly impressive. Frost’s researchers Jim Reston and Bob Zelnick are given chaotic, convincing life by Macleod Stephen and Rob Younger; Younger in particular has a real edge to him. Vicente Macia-Kjaer’s John Birt shows a fine instinct for comedy, while Michael Hajiantonis gives the agent Swifty Lazar a suitably oily tone.

Possibly the best thing in the whole show is Sasha Briggs as Nixon’s ex-military chief of staff Jack Brennan. This is a clever piece of casting that adds a new dimension to the character and is utterly convincing.

Technically, the production’s ambition is not matched by reality. Constant lighting changes do not always correspond to the action – in one key scene, Nixon is constantly venturing into the darkness on too literal a level. The idea of using cameras to show the interviews on a big screen behind the action is a very good one, but it fails to work too often, and even when it succeeds, the resulting image is too dark to be of much help. Padding out the stage with non-speaking participants does give a feeling of activity, but it is of a peculiarly self-conscious kind that fails to convince.

These failings do not detract from director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s clever use of the acting area. The stage seems huge at times and claustrophobic at others, which shows that he knows exactly what he is doing. This means that impetus is maintained over the course of the play, when 90 minutes-plus without a break could seem a slog. Instead, this production speeds along, meaning that the less successful elements can quickly be forgotten.

Running time 1 hour 35 minutes (no interval)
Bedlam Theatre, 11 Bristo Place,, EH1 1EZ
Wednesday 12 – Saturday 16 October 2016
Daily at 7.30pm
Full details and tickets on the Bedlam website: https://www.bedlamtheatre.co.uk/shows/frostnixon

ENDS

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