American Presidential election campaigns are very familiar to us with last year’s bitterly fought one very much lodged in the memory. Who can forget the mudslinging and the sleaze allegations. What is not so familiar is that similar battles take place at the party conventions in the race for Presidential nomination.

And that is what Gore Vidal’s 1960 play is about.

Set in a Philadelphia hotel during the Presidential primaries, the action switches between the suites of William Russell the liberal candidate with a sense of integrity and of populist southern senator Joseph Cantwell, an unscrupulous man determined to get the nomination by any means. Each is trying to get the endorsement of the outgoing president who teases them by holding back his decision.

The play is a gripping political concoction that blends drama with witty humour and reflects Vidal’s viewpoint of the sixties political scene and knowing his background could possibly come near to being true. There is skullduggery on both side and the script offers some fine ethical as well as pragmatic debate. It also has some great put down lines – “I used to think intelligence is contagious but clearly it is not” and “ You have every characteristic of a dog.... except loyalty”.

A truly stellar cast is led by Martin Shaw whose strong performance gives Russell dignity as well as doggedness. He has some touching moments with his wife (the excellent Glynis Barber) as they try to salvage something from a broken marriage. The odious Cantwells are overblown characters that Jeff Fahey and Honeysuckle Weeks manage to keep the right side of caricature. Fahey’s performance is marred at times through inaudibility.

There are strong contributions from Gemma Jones and Anthony Howell but it is Jack Shepherd who steals the show as the homespun President Hockstader.