It’s not a promising scenario: a play about a political interview, which means sitting on your backside watching two men sitting on their backsides and probably talking out of their backsides for an invisible TV audience that is … well, you get the picture. The political agonies of the USA in the early 1970s aren’t exactly topical either, and I rather feared that we might be subjected to a worthy lecture on the liberal preoccupations of a foreign country in a forgotten era. But BLT seldom lets me down, so South Africa had to face Uruguay without me.
And BLT didn't let me down. While the climax of the play is an interview, most is taken up with the process of setting up the broadcast as both parties work out what they can gain. Beneath the high motives, ambition creeps. Nixon is a disgraced politician desperate for rehabilitation. Frost is a playboy TV star with a background in comedy, aware that he needs to develop his career or stagnate and fail. These conflicting ambitions drive the drama, narrated and observed by Jim Reston, a liberal civil rights activist furious that Nixon seems to have got away with betraying the constitution.
With so many behind-the-scenes machinations, a great deal of scene-changing takes place. All the backstage crew deserve huge praise for turning what threatened to be a static play into something vibrant and vigorous. I was rather surprised to hear Jimi Hendrix in a play that spans the years 1973-77, but Iggy Pop was right on the money. The scenes shifted with rapid efficiency without the need for a curtain, which would have stalled the action, and the revolving stage worked brilliantly (although I would have insisted on the scene-changers wearing sleeves: they were too visible).
Considering that the centrepiece was a battle of wills between two men, it was gratifying to see such a large cast portraying characters that were so well defined, well acted and well realised. The over-dressed Swifty Lazar verged on caricature, but Tim Betts' zestful performance never wavered and he brightened the stage. Paul Johnson and Alan Brown overcame the difficulty in playing real, recognisable people through a combination of make-up, vocal imitation but especially body language. No matter that Frost didn't laconically drape his arm over the back of his chair in the actual interviews; when Paul did it you believed he was Frost. And Alan was completely convincing as he portrayed the tarnished majesty of the fallen president.
Joel Trill as liberal activist Jim Reston, who anchors the play, was almost flawless. I suspected he had the strength and presence to turn it into his play, but knew to stop just short. In fact, every actor seemed to know his or her place, which is a compliment to Pauline Armour's direction in keeping such a large and talented cast under control. In that regard Paul Campion, Jane Lobb and Dominic Howell were excellent. I was also impressed by the use of silence: in a struggle for dominance while keeping a civilised veneer, silence is a powerful weapon. But it is also a difficult thing to achieve on stage, standing in front of an audience who might think you have simply forgotten your lines.
I was very taken by Derek Dempsey as Jack Brennan, who conveyed the suppressed frustration of a military man who has lost his old certainties and finds himself in a world he no longer understands, clenching and unclenching his fists as he fights against the recognition that the emperor really has no clothes.
It was a nice touch having Brian Yansen and Clive Jarvis as Secret Service men interacting with the audience in the bar beforehand and shepherding us to our seats with appropriate assurance and contempt – Brian getting the first laugh of the night with his in-character warning about mobile phones.
So BLT justified my faith again. If South Africa didn't have such a good night, blame Diego Forlan, not me.