Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, which dramatizes David Frost’s 1977 television interviews with Richard Nixon, juxtaposes television – extracts from the interviews are performed on stage – with theatrical conventions like onstage narration. This production, directed by Josh Cleary, convinces in both styles, but is let down by the structure of the play itself. It falls into two halves: the second was intense and compelling, but the first looser and sometimes chaotic. Much of this looseness can be blamed on the play, but the production itself took some time to warm up. In the first half the cast had a tendency to perform their roles separately from each other, however, an impressive sense of ensemble emerged in the second half.
The minimalist stage design, with the permanent backdrop of a collage of photographs and headlines, worked well. Cleary kept the cast animated on the stage. Although the play is static by nature, he created varied tableaus with the actors, and intensity built rather than dropped in the extracts from the interviews. There were some technical blunders, especially at the outset: an anticipated sound cue, an ill-timed stage curtain, an attempt to show news footage on TV screens which remained blank. The lighting was sometimes off: a spotlight in the second half remained firmly on Nixon (Joe Tyler Todd’s) crotch rather than his face. Generally, however, the decision to rely on light and sound rather than an elaborate set succeeded convincingly.
The discreet set very much focused attention on the cast, who responded with strong performances. As David Frost, Robin Franklin was persuasively immersed and rescued some of the script’s clunkier lines. His performance was entirely natural and unstrained, and did far more with the emotional glimpses into Frost’s inner life than the material provides. Joe Tyler Todd as Richard Nixon had obviously worked hard on capturing his distinctive physicality, only occasionally veering into caricature. He portrayed Nixon as doggedly self-righteous, believing in his own sentimental homilies, and seeing himself as a victim of a hostile liberal media. Franklin and Todd created compelling, alternately companionable and adversarial, energy in the extracts from interviews, the filming of which provided the tightest and most tense moments of the evening.
There were strong supporting performances, especially from Ben Martineau as former chief of staff Jack Brennan. Martineau played Brennan as slimy and sycophantic but also oddly sincere. Like most of the cast, his performance built impressively as the play moved on to more compelling material in the second half. The role of Brennan mirrors that of liberal journalist Jim Reston; as Reston, Thomas Greig was suitably impassioned, but his rather unrelieved performance suffered next to Martineau’s. Jamie P. Robson, as British producer John Birt, gave a precise performance and was a sustaining presence in the first half, and Kim Alexander, as Barb (historically Bob) Zelnick, acted solidly in the first half and impressively after the interval.
The evening was generally solid. There were a few fraught moments in the first half, and a number of extremely compelling moments in the second. Individual performances were usually strong, but the cast lacked cohesion. The best scenes of the night – those between Frost and Nixon – made its weakest – in the lack of interplay between performances – more obvious.