With the US Presidential election fast approaching, Christopher Shinn’s play is timely. With its depiction of a President-elect’s son struggling to equate his private life with his father’s fame and politics, it is a storyline that may well have been played out behind closed doors in real life. Jenna Bush’s alcohol convictions, Euan Blair’s drunken antics as a 16-year-old and particularly Prince Harry’s appearance at a party dressed as a Nazi all spring to mind.
Shinn’s fast-talking play takes place on election night in the US. The Democratic candidate is expected to win and his family and team are holed up in the campaign hotel waiting for the votes to come in. Among them is John Jr (Eddie Redmayne), the intelligent but troubled only son of the President-elect, whose recent activities at a college party have provoked a political storm-in-a-teacup that the campaign team fears could go global. While John Jr claims freedom of expression, those around him – including his camera-ready mother, college friend Matt and campaign managers Marc and Tracy – think he is not considering the wider implications of dressing up as the prophet Muhammad at a college ‘naked party’ and should publicly apologise.
With this scenario as its focus, Shinn’s play explores broad issues related to religion, culture and politics. But it is also about family and the personal story of a young man who has been forced to grow up in the shadow of the favoured older sibling – politics – in his parents’ lives. Redmayne plays him as a quick-witted, intelligent and idealistic Ivy-leaguer who is nevertheless a naïve and strangely vulnerable young man. His gangly frame and tendency to flounce hint at the stroppy teenager that still lurks behind this opinionated adult.
It is in the final scene between John and his father, John Sr (Matthew Marsh), that Shinn really depicts the sad clash between political strategy and family, between soundbites and reality, between a public facade and a private life troubled to the point of suicide. His son’s intentional car crash years before and subsequent therapy has left John Sr tip-toeing around conversations, talking in counsellor-speak and afraid of upsetting the delicate relationship he has established with his son. Even that delicacy is something of a façade; both mother and father are brightly accepting of John’s homosexuality, and yet, as John points out so bitterly, his father’s public politics negate his private liberalism.
Despite its weighty issues, this is a fast-paced play packed with quick-fire dialogue. Redmayne, on stage throughout, gets strong support from the rest of the cast, in particular Nancy Crane as his all-smiling, placating mother and Pamela Nomvete as feisty, straight-talking campaigner Tracy.
But the play is dominated by John Jr, who, as the election is called and his father steps into the limelight, watches from his hotel window, sadly adrift in a private life that will always take second place.