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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar Theatre Summer 2006; Gielgud Theatre Winter 2006-2007

[Reviewed at the Gielgud]

Peter Morgan's play about David Frost's interviews with Richard Nixon transfers from the Donmar, providing both an illustrated history lesson and the occasion for some excellent acting.

A bit of ancient history for those who were not there: Richard Nixon was elected US President in 1968. In 1972 some men connected to his re-election campaign were caught breaking into the opposition headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington.

In itself, this was a minor crime, almost standard dirty politics. But over the next two years Nixon attempted to block the investigation of the break-in, and then the investigation of the cover-up, and that obstruction of justice was a major crime. (Similarly, it was not Bill Clinton's amorous dalliances that almost brought him down, but his lying about them under oath.).

Faced with the disgrace of being removed from office, Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974.

Morgan's play picks up at that point, as David Frost, very ambitious but stuck at the level of TV chat show host, sees an opportunity to advance himself, and contracts to pay Nixon close to a million dollars for some exclusive interviews.

Frost must then scramble to raise the money and sell the programs to TV networks around the world, all while knowing that he has to get Nixon to say something spectacular. Nixon, meanwhile, is in it for the money and for the chance to begin rewriting history and rehabilitating his image.

And in fact, as Morgan shows, Frost was way out of his league, Nixon easily talking rings around him and evading every pointed question. And yet in their last interview Frost pulled something out of himself and got Nixon to make the closest thing to a confession and apology that he was capable of.

Morgan and director Michael Grandage effectively build up the tension, even for those of us who know what is coming, and the playwright - working from interviews and imagination - offers his explanation of how Frost did it and why Nixon let it be done to him.

His explanation, which has to do with an unlikely-seeming telephone call and a so-cliched-that-it-must-be-true last-minute discovery of a bit of evidence, may not be right, but it works dramatically.

As Nixon, Frank Langella gives a bravura performance, capturing enough of the man's look and sound to suggest him without stooping to literal imitation. The gravelly voice is there, the tendency to mumble, the not knowing what to do with his hands, the pathetically feeble attempts at humour.

But Langella also shows us the old pro who has defeated far better opponents than this, along with the hints of a weariness that might be ready to give up.

One cavil: it's been thirty years, but I don't remember Nixon getting quite so misty-eyed at the climactic TV moment, and I suspect Langella may be allowing himself a bit of actorly self-indulgence.

Michael Sheen's Frost is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, still having fun being rich and famous, resisting right up to the last minute any fear that he might be in trouble, and then proving himself when he had to. It would have been nice if playwright and director had given the character more opportunity to grow and deepen - but then there are those who would argue that the real Frost didn't give the actor that opportunity.

Elliot Cowan plays Frost's most anti-Nixon associate and serves as narrator, building up the we-had-to-nail-him tension, while Corey Johnson is Nixon's aide, reminding us that there were some who still believed in him, and Kerry Shale does an amusing turn as Nixon's agent.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Frost/Nixon - Donmar and Gielgud Theatres 2006

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